Windbag Miles is a blog about points, miles, credit cards, travel, and general windbaggery.

Is the Amex referral program kinda sorta a way to chip away at the once-per-lifetime policy?

Disclaimer: We’re dealing with a political situation that makes it borderline crass to talk about first world problems like which first class is best or how to avoid <GASP> flying in economy when there are people who would strap themselves to the wing of a plane just to find refuge in this country if they could. That being said, I also believe that people can think about more than one thing at once, and that me writing about luxury travel and capitalist trappings like credit card loyalty programs is not going to trade off with the volume of necessary journalism devoted to covering current events. However, I would encourage you to support organizations that help refugees, the ACLU, or independent journalism outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Guardian, all of which need all the financial support they can get right now. Finally, if you didn’t come here to hear about my politics, then leave, because I’m not going to hold back just because “this is supposed to be a points and miles blog.”

I was reading this post on Doctor of Credit (by sirtheta, who has been sending this blog a bunch of traffic by linking it on Reddit, so you know obviously I'm biased and nothing I say or will ever say means anything), and something occurred to me. In the past, I've defended Amex by saying that, even though they have their annoying once-per-lifetime policy, they also offer more opportunities to incrementally earn bonus points than any other issuer. The fact that they offer so many cards, and that they don't seem to mind people having up to nine at a time (although they'll only let me have eight) further multiplies these opportunities. Their card referral program is one of these opportunities, especially when they offer deals like 7500 bonus points to refer someone to a no annual fee card.

I phrased the title of this post as a question, because I honestly don't know, and I'm also not sure if I want to poke the bear and risk getting banned. Maybe Vinh over at Miles Per Day will do it a bunch of times and report back! The theory here is as follows:

  • Activate two-player mode (ht: Reddit) by making your spouse, long-term partner, or nearest oblivious family member a party to your churning habit.
  • Refer your spouse and collect the sign-up bonus when they get approved.
  • Cancel your card a little while later.
  • Have your spouse refer you and collect the sign-up bonus when you get approved.
  • Have your spouse cancel their card a little while later.
  • And on and on into oblivion.

On face, it sure seems like this is a way to milk small bonuses out of cards that you've had before, basically by giving the bonus to the person sitting next to you on the couch and eventually pooling your points (which Amex makes super easy, since you only need to be an authorized user on one of your spouse's cards in order to transfer their points to your loyalty accounts). There's a big reason you may not want to do this, though (in addition to risking a ban) - it costs you a hard credit inquiry for a nominal reward. More and more, banks are starting to care when you have too many inquiries, and even though BofA and Barclay haven't instituted hard and fast rules like 5/24, there are reports of people getting rejected for cards for having too many inquiries. Even worse, shit-trench banks like Comenity (Comeniturd? Cockmenity?) might approve you for a card and then revoke your approval after a manual review of your credit file. It depends on how much you care about counting your inquiries... if you churn Amex's referrals a few times a year (spreading the inquiries out between you and your spouse), it won't matter much, but people in this game can be kind of crazy, and I wouldn't be surprised to see someone over on Reddit complaining that they can't get any cards anymore because they opened and closed 36 Amex cards in three months.

Most importantly, Amex's terms and conditions for referrals specifically mention the other person not being eligible if they currently have the card; however, the dreaded "have or have had" language is absent. See for yourself (emphasis added):

This offer is available online only to Basic Card Members. Please allow 6-8 weeks for the Referral Bonus to post to your account after each referred individual is approved for the Card. You cannot earn a Referral Bonus for those who currently have the Card you recommended or for individuals who have been referred by someone else. Due to the confidential nature of the credit approval process, you will not be notified of whether we approve or decline any application(s) from individual(s) you refer. Also, the individuals you refer may not receive the referral e-mail if they have previously "opted out" of receiving e-mail marketing communications from American Express. Any violation or abuse of this program may result in the forfeiture of the Referral Bonus. In order to receive the Referral Bonus, your account must be active and in good standing at the time of fulfillment. Terms & restrictions of the rewards program corresponding to your Card account apply. NOTE: The value of the Referral Bonus may be taxable income to you; you are responsible for any federal or state taxes resulting from the Referral Bonus. Please consult your tax advisor if you have questions about the tax treatment of the Referral Bonus.

To me, that means that you could volley a card like the Premier Rewards Gold and do pretty well. Consider: year 1, you have the card and refer your spouse; you get 10,000 points and they get 30,000. Year 2, you cancel your card and repeat the inverse. Year 3, you go back to year 1. Since Amex waives the fee on this card for the first year, in that three year span, you'd net 30,000 points as a sign-up bonus and 30,000 points in referral bonuses, not to mention $600 in airline credits ($900 if you time it right). Is it worth amassing three inquiries between the two of you for 30,000 points and $900? That's up to you, but it does represent a way to churn a little bit from Amex even with the once-per-lifetime rule. (Certainly we're getting into blood-from-a-stone territory, but that's the world we live in.) Even better, this also requires no minimum spending on your part, so it doesn't take away from any of your other churning or manufactured spending opportunities.

I might be reaching here... I personally don't know if it'd be worth the trouble for me to do this, but I may give it a shot at some point just to see if it works.

No, the Alaska/Virgin merger hasn't made first class redemptions to Hawaii any easier.

Wow, maybe I should care more about WOW Air as I stare down the barrel of the future of loyalty programs.