Home > American Express, Chase > SkyFalling on Vanilla

SkyFalling on Vanilla

November 10, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s been a week since my last post — I’m not really cut out for this travel blogger thing. I’m more active on Twitter – that’s where all the fun is. After all, I still think of this as a hobby, and Twitter has been a great way to connect with like-minded others.

But then today happened. And I just needed to say something about it that 140 characters wouldn’t capture.

Back in the spring, FrequentMiler talked about being able to get 5x Ultimate Rewards points almost everywhere by using a Chase Ink card to purchase a Prepaid American Express and Vanilla Reload packs at Office Depot. Before that, we would simply use credit cards at stores that offered bonus categories to buy merchant gift cards. This was a huge deal because we could get 5x points at any place that accepted American Express, and use the prepaid cards at ATMs to help goose up effective spending.

I’m sure others may have figured out that chain of transactions before FrequentMiler, but his initial and followup posts were done so well, with all the requisite cautions and caveats, that I still consider it post of the year. There was no reason for me to write a blog post on it, since Frequent Miler had already covered so many bases. I do some work in the scientific research community, and knowing who came before you and recognizing their work is paramount to a writer’s credentials. Unless I had something to make the deal even better, there was no reason to keep on talking about it. Anyone who follows my blog and not Frequent Miler’s is doing themselves a huge disservice. There’s no need for me to copy+paste his work.

But over the course of the summer and now autumn, plenty of blogs simply copied down Frequent Miler’s information and touted it as their own, and added their own affiliate links to make money on it. No original research went into this, and that just tickled me funny.

All these posts brought out information into the forefront. Now, I’m fine with sharing deals, but there’s a difference between sharing and shouting from rooftops. In this hobby, somebody in the chain is going to lose money. In the purest example, airlines are giving us seats for pennies on the dollar with our miles. However, they’re doing so because they have an excess of inventory and can make money off the loyalty program.

But when we add other dealers into this mix – Chase, American Express, Office Depot, Incomm – somebody is going to lose money. Think about it – in the old Mint deal, the government was losing money due to credit card processing fees. Same here – Chase was giving 5x points but only recouping around 2% of the transaction, and Office Depot was losing 2% of each transaction, even though the reload fee was less than 1%. If I have a business and I’m losing money on a transaction, I stop selling that product. It may take a while to notice it, but eventually, that’ll be my course of action. But if people start writing up posts to tell thousands of others to exploit my business, you sure as hell should know that I’ll cut off that mistake from my customers.

Today, Office Depot abruptly decided to stop selling these Vanilla Reloads. It comes just as BlueBird was getting into stride (if you don’t know, Bluebird was an even more lucrative angle to the Ink 5x that was first detailed by FrequentMiler, then copied on every other blog to rake in hits and affiliate money). I spoke with the regional manager at my Office Depot store today and he told me that “We figured out what you all are up to” and that “people aren’t going to rip off Office Depot anymore.”

What’s funny is that the actual store manager knows me from my visits there and my conversations with him, and he didn’t think I was doing anything wrong since I told him a story of wanting to have an Amex for certain purchases (which is true) while leaving out the 5x angle. Yet, there are stories of customers who went into detail with the clerks on how they were taking advantage of Bluebird to get free points while sticking Office Depot with the bill. It’s a bit of a reach, but that breaks the 1st rule about these types of deals: “don’t call the banks/airlines/companies.” If the Office Depot person is wondering why you’re paying $4 to buy a $500 gift card, act dumb and just say your business told you too (that’s why you have a business employee card).

I also think it’s also false for any blogger to say that their site don’t carry any weight — my simple WordPress blog itself has gotten thousands of views and I’ve been contacted by representatives of companies I did trip reports on. The more commercial ones have got to have much more clout than I do. Some of them have actually met with the banks themselves, or have exclusive partnerships with the banks we’re trying to take advantage of. It’s as if they’re trying to be double agents, getting in cozy with the banks to try to help the common mileage junkie get an in. Sorry, but if there’s anything that 2008 taught me, it’s that banks will have the last laugh.

It also gets to be a little bit much to say that they shouldn’t be to blame for over-publicizing deals when FlyerTalk has just just as many posts. Last time I checked on Google, FlyerTalk didn’t show up on the front page when I searched “Vanilla Reload” (there is one post that shows up now, which is a discussion that started today). Sure, FlyerTalk is a large site, but it is an actual community there where people are willing to help out so long as you don’t blab everything out and make it easy for Google Alerts to get a company’s attention. If you don’t understand a thread, start participating and figure out who the big players in there are (you can click the number of posts to see the people with the most posts in the thread). If you need help, send a PM. Out of maybe 100 PMs, I’ve only heard “no” 2 or 3 times.

Now, I’ve only met one prominent blogger in person so far, and I’m glad to know that blogger. I’ll likely meet a lot more of them in a few weeks at Frequent Traveler University near LAX. I’m sure they are awesome people, and I even plunked down $99 to spend a weekend with them. But each of these blogs that I mentioned has a commercial arm, and that’s the part I’m critiquing.

I’m voting with my clicks, and have stopped giving my credit card signup affiliate money to blogs who are willing to kill deals for their personal gain. If you read my last app-o-rama post, you’ll notice that I purposefully mentioned giving my Ink signups to FrequentMiler; every other credit card was applied directly without an affiliate. I’m not asking everyone to do this, but money talks and I hope you give it a consideration.

I also made this video. Before you act offended, realize this is a very popular internet meme. Some people find it insensitive, but it’s been around for over 4 years as one of the most enduring internet parody videos … it’s not even the first mileage junkie parody this month!

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Categories: American Express, Chase
  1. November 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Great rant! And awesome video too!

    • Amol
      November 11, 2012 at 11:17 pm

      Thanks for the link!

  2. gregorygrady
    November 10, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Absolutely CLASSIC YouTube video you made there. I absolutely loved it!!! And I 100% agree with everything in your post, which is about the first time I’ve agreed with a blogger in quite some time!!

  3. Amit
    November 11, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Super ! Really Super ! Today at OD the manager showed me the image of blogger’s girlfriend … she was having every minute detail that was provided to her through her management – which they found from nowhere else but the blogging site. While I was leaving OD she laughed and told “CVS next?.. do let me know as well …”

    • Amol
      November 11, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      Haha! Yeah, seems like the Office Depot clerks near me had an idea of what we were doing. Which is why I wrote this — these blogs are highly public and can be seen by everyone, a little discretion would be nice.

  4. Julie
    November 11, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Hilarious video. Genius. When he said “the first Google image is the girlfriend holding up a Reload card” I could have peed my pants.

  5. Sean
    November 11, 2012 at 10:06 am

    ROTFL! Hilarious video.

  6. Chris D.
    November 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Curious: what happened with the banks in 2008? I’m new to the game as of 2012. πŸ™‚

    • Amol
      November 11, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      I was referencing the bank bailouts πŸ˜‰

  7. MidTierStatus
    November 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Love it!

  8. brian
    November 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Laughing so hard I ‘m crying. Genius and amen!

  9. George
    November 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Didn’t know that you made that video. It’s hilarious!

  10. George
    November 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    I know that Chase was losing on this, but how exactly was Office Depot losing money on this deal? How is buying $500 worth of Vanilla cards different from buying $500 of anything else they sell?

    • Amol
      November 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      Because for a $500 laptop, OD keeps that money (minus the processing fees) and uses that as revenue. For a $500 reload, you get the money, and OD keeps a piece of the $3.95 activation fee. But likely that CC processing fees added up to much much more than OD was recouping.

  11. November 15, 2012 at 8:14 am

    This is the best video ever. Thanks for sharing this! A million people (OK, I exaggerate) have sent me links to this, but I didn’t know who made it. Great work!

    By the way, I don’t actually believe that the Vanilla deal was killed by blogger or Flyertalk exposure. I believe that many criminals have found ways to get cards activated at Office Depot’s expense and so they decided to stop carrying the card. I’ve heard from an insider that Office Depot did make a very small profit on these cards, so aside from criminal activity they had no reason to stop. Chase, on the other hand, clearly didn’t like what we were doing so there’s a small chance that they pressured OD to stop, but I still think that the fraud explanation is the simplest and most likely.

    • Amol
      November 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      I think this’ll be an interesting discussion for FTU. I already have a “scheduled” discussion with MMS, would love to see what you think about the Life of Vanilla.

      • November 16, 2012 at 6:47 am

        Amol, I’d be happy to meet up with you guys

  1. November 15, 2012 at 7:33 am
  2. August 1, 2013 at 8:24 pm

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