June 21, 2024

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Fly to a New World, Set Foot on Every Adventure

Points influencers are everywhere. Some trips look too good to be true.

6 min read

If you binge-watch videos on your phone for long enough, you’re likely to run into at least one clip about travel “hacking.”

Discover ways to fly free, one video might say. Crisscross the globe and stay at hotels without paying a dime, another may declare. These TikTok and Instagram posts are popular for a reason.

Leveraging loyalty and rewards programs from airlines, hotels and credit cards has helped travelers save for decades; American Express and American Airlines were some of the first players in the 1980s.

Complex rules have made the universe of points and miles seem inaccessible to people outside the world of frequent business travel, but that audience is expanding as barriers to entry are lowered. Today there are hundreds of blogs and social media accounts dedicated entirely to breaking down the nuances of points and miles. However, you can’t trust them all.

The world of points and miles is a game, albeit a long one. It can be worth it, but only if you play responsibly.

The business of influencing

Max Do, a former full-time graphic designer in San Diego, pivoted to creating content about points, miles and travel rewards in 2019 under the MaxMilesPoints account. Do says there has been an explosion of influencers who have joined in since then.

“I certainly wasn’t one of the first, but the number of points and miles creators that focus on travel has saturated Instagram and TikTok in the last couple of years,” he says.

Creators hook their audiences with travel experiences. Often, these are clips of extravagant business- and first-class flights and stays at five-star hotels and resorts — all, supposedly, booked with points.

Other accounts, meanwhile, focus more on the educational component of travel rewards, breaking down the specific methods to collect points and miles to later redeem with exacting detail (commonly referred to as “earn and burn”).

“When creating my posts and videos, I like to think about avid rewards people but also someone making their first redemption,” Do says.

@maxmilespoints

⬇️ More Info⁠ ⁠ ALL ONE-WAY, double it if you want round-trip⁠ ⁠ ✈️ Iberia Business Class Off-Peak ⁠ ⁠ 35,000 from the Midwest / East Coast to Madrid⁠ 42,500 from the West Coast to Madrid⁠ ⁠ Book directly with Iberia, or you can book through British Airways.⁠ ⁠ Amex, Bilt, and other points transfer directly to Iberia.⁠ ⁠ Amex, Bilt, Capital One, and other points transfers to British Airways.⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ✈️ TAP Portugal⁠ ⁠ 35,000 Avianca LifeMiles ⁠ New York (JFK) to Lisbon, Portugal⁠ ⁠ Book directly with Avianca LifeMiles⁠ ⁠ Amex, Bilt, Capital One, Citi points transfers to Avianca Lifemiles⁠ This is the only route ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ✈️ ANA⁠ ⁠ 45,000 Virgin Points (west coast)⁠ 47,500 Virgin Points (east coast)⁠ ⁠ Find award availability and then book through Virgin Atlantic by calling them.⁠ ⁠ Amex, Bilt, Capital One, Citi, and other credit card points are transfers to Virgin Atlantic. ⁠

♬ original sound – Max Miles Points

For creators who focus on rewards programs, posting travel videos can be lucrative. As the business of influencing continues to flourish, creators typically can earn revenue in the form of paid partnerships, sponsored content or, in this case, selling products.

“The trend I see generally is that personal finance creators will leverage stories of their own travels to promote travel credit cards,” says Katie Gatti Tassin, founder of personal finance brand Money With Katie. Since starting her site and social media profiles in 2020, she’s seen an uptick in accounts with credit card affiliate links.

Here’s how those links work: Let’s say you open Instagram, watch a creator’s video and later feel compelled to apply for a credit card through them (often via a link found in their account bio). If approved, the creator will earn a commission — sometimes hundreds of dollars per card, according to Gatti Tassin.

For consumers, credit card bonus offers are the quickest way to earn points and miles in a hurry. It’s not unusual to see sign-up offers exceed 100,000 points. Apply for a card, get approved, spend a certain amount within a set period and those points will be deposited into your account.

Travel inspo vs. smart finances

Gen Z and millennials are increasingly reliant on social media apps as a search and recommendation tool. And when it comes to points and miles, there’s often a blurry line between two niches: travel inspiration and personal finance advice.

“There are many creators out there who just reveal clips of incredible first-class seats or an overwater villa, say they redeemed everything on points, and shove a credit card in your face,” Do says. According to Do, that content is “oversimplified” to get people to pay attention.

Among a few of the issues that Do sees as red flags:

  • Videos that promote first-class and business-class seats that are extremely difficult to redeem
  • Claiming an ability to earn hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of miles quickly
  • An assertion that there’s only one “correct” way to redeem points for travel

Overall, there’s often a lack of nuance that creates more questions than answers for audiences.

“We also always see the humblebrags about the number of credit cards in someone’s wallet, but the average person likely does not want to deal with 20 cards — no matter how many bonus points are available,” Do says.

Credit card rewards can provide immense value to travelers, but it’s important to know when content is too good to be true or an impractical get-points-rich-quick scheme.

“Rewards can save you a ton of money or provide travel experiences you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford,” Gatti Tassin says.

Advertising rules for influencers

Because of the inherent financial implications with credit cards, there’s more at stake than, say, someone sharing an outfit that can be purchased through affiliate links.

Organizations such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) require influencers to disclose when paid affiliate links are being used.

Meanwhile, although the Transportation Department doesn’t have direct oversight of credit card marketing practices, it still works closely with the CFPB. That’s because travel is so closely interconnected with the U.S. financial system. At a joint hearing on May 9 with the CFPB on credit card, airline and hotel rewards, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “If a customer makes significant decisions that might include not just what airlines to fly, but what credit card to use … it matters that the reward they get for that is as advertised.”

Each credit card company also has a compliance team that ensures products are communicated appropriately to audiences. “How our products are presented is important to us, both so prospective customers have accurate information when making decisions about applying for a credit card, and so our current customers understand the benefits their cards offer,” a Capital One spokesperson said.

“Travel rewards require a level of financial literacy the average consumer probably does not have, so as a creator, you are responsible for educating before encouraging them to apply,” Gatti Tassin said.

That includes subtleties about how credit works.

Advice for new cardholders

The first rule of playing points is simple: If you’re already struggling with credit card debt, you shouldn’t be charging more to chase the fantasy of a “free” vacation.

“If you have credit card debt, it doesn’t make sense to pay 20 percent or more in interest just to get a few percentage points’ worth of airline miles, hotel points or cash back,” says Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst for Bankrate. “About two-thirds of people with credit card debt are making the mistake of chasing rewards while paying high interest charges.”

Rossman notes that applying for a rewards card may initially ding your credit score, but there could be a positive impact in the long term.

“Your credit score usually declines a little bit (often five to 10 points) after applying for a credit card, but after a few months of responsible card usage, there’s a good chance your credit score could be even higher than before,” he adds. “Positive payment history helps, as does keeping your card usage low.”

As for collecting points and miles responsibly with credit cards? Well, don’t even think about the world of rewards until after your first or second card and you’re able to build strong credit habits. Paying in full each month is key.

“Over time, you can layer in more expenses and eventually get to a point where you’re putting all of your routine purchases on a credit card and paying in full to avoid interest while earning rewards,” Rossman says.

And remember that cash-back cards are out there, too. Cash back is the top credit card feature in the United States by a wide margin, according to Bankrate.

“Travel rewards can be more lucrative, but they’re also more work,” Rossman stresses.


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