Travel Blogs and Credit Card Signup Bonuses

I have no idea the broader answers to this reader’s question, or at least I won’t speculate, but I will offer perspective from my own experience.

LIH Prem said,

What would the travel blogosphere look like without credit card referral fees? (compared to the way it is today.)


I’ve been writing this blog since May of 2002. When the blog first started there was an ad on it, but it wasn’t mine. I signed up for a free Blogspot account. After I had been writing a little while, Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) bought out that ad for me.

I probably had gotten the most attention selling Impeach Norm Mineta bumper stckers, though I did so at cost (if memory serves, $2 apiece including shipping and I handled all fulfillment myself). I wasn’t making any money, I was just chronicling my journey, what I was learning about frequent flyer programs, writing up offers so I would be able to find them later, and sharing it along the way with anyone who cared to read.

I’ve never been much into web stats or paying attention to my traffic, this has always been my blog and I’ve written what interested me at the time. Randy Petersen began hosting my blog in early 2003, and there may have been display ads as part of his site but no ads specific to the blog itself. That changed in late 2004, I think, they experimented with “BlogAds” and those paid I think $40 a week. I didn’t see any of that money, Randy told me I could have 100% of it and I told him not to worry about it, if he wound up recouping hosting costs that would be great.

A couple of years ago advertising began generating enough side income to be noteworthy. What was a game changer for me though was starting my award booking service, that’s the thing I’ve done that could actually be a real career (although I continue with my full-time job, writing the blog and booking awards on the side.) And about 15 months ago I also added affiliate links for credit cards. I’ve been writing and recommending credit cards since the beginning, credit card companies will pay websites for people who apply and are approved for their cards. For years I directed readers straight to the credit card company website, and they simply didn’t provide the referral to anyone.. I figured I would see what happened if I said to folks, would you mind using my referral link when you apply?

There’s no question that there’s been several changes in content here over that 15 months. Credit cards represent a plurality of all miles earned, and I was undercovering them before. Even still, take the month of January, fewer than 4% of my posts contain a referral link of any kind. But I do write about cards more than I did before, I’m more interested in them than before.

These are among my most popular posts. I hope that they genuinely help people. I try hard to offer only the best available offers for each card, whether they provide a referral to me or not. And to analyze each offer the best that I can. My readers will have to be the judge of whether I’m accomplishing that or not.

As I say I don’t dig into the stats a lot, but I do know that my traffic has grown substantially since I’ve increased my coverage of credit cards. Some people don’t like the coverage but best I can tell on the whole more people do. I get a disproportionate share of cranky comments on posts about credit card offers — often bitter that someone else might click on a link I’ve provided to an offer — one cranky commenter recently explained that it’s because I allow comments and they’re venting as much about other sites as about mine. (There’s really only one person I’ve explicitly disinvited from commenting here, mostly I just delete spam and the occasional extreme sexual description or non-sequitur personal detail.)

I can’t tell you what “the travel blogosphere” would look like if there weren’t opportunities for affiliate income. I can only speak for myself, I was writing this blog for many years without even Googleads, so I suspect that I would keep writing. But I do appreciate the extra income that comes from the blog, I think it really reinforces what I’m doing here, and that helped rejuvenate me after all these years. I think I had a better blog in 2012 than in 2008 or 2004.

I’ve developed my own approach here, which does include disclosing any financial relationship I may have in every single blog post where one may exist (and not just in the ‘About’ section of the blog, where I do that as well). And in writing about what I believe the best offers are, although sometimes which offer is better isn’t clear (as it will depend on an individual’s circumstances) in which case I try to give the best analysis I can.

Sometimes I’ll get emails, like one recently to the effect that the reader had just received a targeted email to sign up for 50,000 points with the Southwest Visa and why wasn’t I writing about that? I’ve written about the Southwest Visa and 50,000 point bonuses before, will do so again, but don’t always jump on those because while they’re valuable (potentially over $800 in travel on ‘wanna get away’ fares) it’s also for flying on Southwest which really isn’t my bag. But a 50,000 point offer is a 50,000 point offer, and it tends to get included when I do roundups or top lists of best credit card offers (whether there’s a referral there or not).

And I don’t take freebies really either, I haven’t ever taken a free hotel stay and I’ve been offered things like private jet travel and European cruises (!). I do giveaways when I can and some people argue that those bias me (a company gives me something to give away, that makes me a hero to my readers, I therefore owe the company for giving me that). At that point I have biases like any other human being, the difference is the volume of writing I do I think mine are pretty clear.

Readers who find my writing valuable will keep coming back, and if my writing isn’t valuable readers will go away. Either way I continue to write about what’s interesting to me at the moment, like I have for the past 11 years. Hope that perspective helps, I can only do my best each and every day and I do continue to hope it’s worth the price of admission.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. To be clear I am not required by any issuer to talk about their products. I turn down issuers all the time, and do not write about many of the more ‘lucrative’ cards out there because I do not think they are superior products. There’s no material change in my arrangements with the issuers in 2013, either. Sorry to disappoint.

  2. Gary, I love your blog. I read it just about every day. I’ve learned a ton, I like your content, and it is always well researched. You probably don’t recall but I used your booking service as well, just a few years ago. But there is one thing that I see in your writing that drives me nuts: you consistently leave out the connecting word that comes after a comma, to start a new phrase. Examples would be: after, although, because, if, since, when, while. If you could catch those errors before publishing, your blog would read silky-smooth and be perfect. That is my only complaint. I suspect other language pedantic-types are bothered as well. I just find it mentally jarring when that critical word is missing. Other than that, I do love and I’m glad you write it.

  3. I appreciate this post. I know you can’t disclose how much you get paid for each referral, but I’d love to know how many referrals you average per month.

  4. Gary,

    You were one of the original bloggers. I remember your summaries every time you reached the next 1000 post marker on Flyertalk. I’m still rinsing my razor in cold water.
    The thing that’s changed in the blogging world is the repetition that everyone writes about. All the bloggers re-hash things, but in their own words. Most times it’s redundant. The ‘value added’ (to me) comes from the analysis that’s provided. Example: Darius specializes in SouthWest, while Brian knows and teaches all about Avios.

    There’s real value in what you, Rick, Summer, and yes, even George is doing. When I have the extra time, I read them all.

  5. Did I say that your idea to throw it out to the readers to ask you questions and you then answer them was brilliant? Oh, yes I did.

    I read you since Day one. I still read you. It should always be about the content. And treat your readers with respect and…yes full disclosure. You do things right as Frequent Miler does and as Million Mile Secrets is really doing these days.

    But I will never forgive you for censoring the sexually explicit comments…come on man! 🙂

    Oh, one top 10 credit cards post a month is more than plenty in my opinion;-)

  6. Keep up the amazing work, Gary – Definitely a top not guy/blog!! Thank you for everything you’ve taught me.

  7. Keep up the great work Gary. Again, I’m not sure what people are getting angry about. You provide very valuable information that takes you time and effort to produce. The fact that you give it away free is a blessing. Any referral or other income you receive you are entitled to and I have no qualms with and fully support. I would go a step further and not even defend myself with % of CC vs. non CC posts and I’ve been writing the blog X years without compensation. You have nothing to defend. If they don’t like this system, they don’t have to read your blog. It’s as simple as that. Yet, they continue to revisit to complain. #ridiculous

  8. Great post. I was harping on this in a post I wrote earlier this week. I think it’s perfectly fine for affiliate links to be embedded in posts, as long as their full disclosure and the posts don’t affect the overall content of the blog. If a great new offer comes around and you happen to have an affiliate link for that card, that’s great news! Use the link! But don’t do a “summary” post of “the best [insert adjective here] credit cards” every week. You don’t do this, but others do, and it seems very spammy and opportunistic.

  9. Gary,
    I really appreciate your posts. I am smart enough to determine which posts or which parts of posts are advertising for a card and I really don’t care that there is advertising or pimping a card. The content is worth it to me so keep it up!

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