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

Are you having panic attacks over Chase devaluing the IHG free anniversary night? Here are some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques that may help.

In the extremely unlikely event that you haven't already read it elsewhere, Chase sent out letters to IHG cardholders today stating that as of May 1st, the free anniversary night benefit will be restricted to hotels costing 40,000 points or less. This is a significant devaluation to what may have been the single best benefit of any credit card, and people are predictably upset. Judging from what I saw today on Twitter/blog comments/etc, the reaction is akin to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLBbgI2x5ME

(In case you're at work and can't watch the clip, Bob's friends inexplicably fly into a rage and beat the shit out of him every time he says "Kate and I are getting married." If you replace "Kate and I are getting married" with "Kate and I are devaluing the IHG free night benefit," you'll get a sense of how people are taking today's news.)

Let's take a few deep breaths. First of all, blogs have been proclaiming this benefit "too good to last" for years now. Everyone knows it was going to get devalued sooner or later, so it's not like this is some huge shock. Second, even with the 40k cap, it's still one of the better free night benefits out there. If a devaluation was inevitable, I'd rather see them put a cap on where you can redeem it rather than instituting a $10,000 spending requirement à la Hilton. But, I don't want to deny you your feelings right now, since many of you are clearly pissed off (as evidenced by the tweets I saw today proclaiming an immediate closure of the account followed by a ritualistic shredding of the card). So, rather than just write a post about how people are overreacting, I thought I would try to help you work through your feelings using some tried-and-true techniques from the world of cognitive behavioral therapy.

#1: Downward Arrow At its heart, a panic attack is a misfiring of your sympathetic nervous system (AKA your fight or flight response) when there's no external danger. You get the same physical symptoms as if someone were chasing you with a gun, although there's no one with a gun. (It's not considered a problem in psychology circles to have panic attacks when someone actually is chasing you with a gun.) The result is something that could more or less be described as having an army of flaming ants crawling underneath your skin while your lungs fill with sand and your fingers are stuck in electrical sockets.

While panic attacks feel like they come out of nowhere, that's not actually the case. A key exercise is to identify what exactly it is you're afraid of, since that will help you identify situations that trigger panic attacks. This is called the "downward arrow" technique, and it usually goes something like this:

I'm afraid I'm having a heart attack --> I'm afraid OF having a heart attack --> My family has a history of heart disease --> I'm afraid my genetics doom me to an early death --> Because I've accepted early death as an inevitability, I'm constantly scared that my moment has arrived.

In this example, the patient who was randomly having panic attacks that felt like heart attacks can set out to work on his (false) conviction that he's going to die early, and through therapy, he will probably find that the frequency of his panic attacks decreases.

Bringing this around to the IHG card, I think the people who are freaking out need to identify what it is they're actually scared of. Is it that all great credit card benefits will eventually go away? Is it that this is another sign that churning is ultimately doomed and they'll have to go back to flying economy and staying in Motels 6? Is it that they'll never have a good option to stay at the Intercontinental Bora Bora? Stop here and do some self-examination, and then come back and move on to #2.

#2: Twisted/Untwisted Thoughts One problem that's consistent across a whole range of mental illness issues is the tacit acceptance of one's own thoughts as being "correct." For someone that suffers from self loathing, all the reassurance in the world is useless, because "I'm the only one who really knows how awful I am." Of course, that's almost never true: a person is usually a terrible judge of her own character. The "objective" facts she concocts are in fact "twisted thoughts," and so an important exercise is to recognize, identify, and untwist those thoughts. Like most CBT techniques, it requires diligence and persistence, but after a while, her brain will begin to recognize twisted thoughts as they form and untwist them before they take hold and cause anxiety/depression.

Let's look at some of the fears that resulted from the downward arrow exercise:

Twisted: Churning is ultimately doomed and I'll have to go back to flying economy.

Untwisted: Churning is getting harder, but new cards pop up every year, and more banks are getting into the premium credit card space, opening additional opportunities.

Twisted: All great credit card benefits will ultimately go away.

Untwisted: It was nice to have this great benefit all these years, but new cards offer new and different benefits, like the Hilton Aspire card offering Diamond status, or whatever Amex's forthcoming super-premium Marriott card is going to offer.

Unfortunately, sometimes it's tough to fully accept the untwisted version, because your anxiety assigns greater credibility to the twisted thought than its untwisted counterpart. If you're having this problem, proceed to #3.

#3: Double Standard Technique In many cases, the anxiety sufferer will applies a double standard to himself versus others. In this case, a role-playing exercise can help identify the double standard and cut through the twisted thought's grip on his overall thought process. In the exercise, the therapist plays the role of a trusted and loving friend in the same predicament, and the patient helps him deal with his issues, examining in the process how his responses to the friend differ from his responses to himself. Here's an example:

Friend: "I'm so angry that Chase devalued the IHG free night benefit. Now my churning game is totally fucked, and I might as well go back to staying at a Motel 6."

Patient: "I'm sorry you're having a tough time with this development, but there are still some great things about this card that you can benefit from."

Friend: "Fuck that, I'm canceling my account and putting this card in the shredder where it belongs."

Patient: "I validate your feelings of anger, but have you considered how good of a value it is to have a free night at any IHG hotel costing up to 40,000 points per night for only $49?"

Friend: "Bullshit, that benefit was only good for aspirational redemptions like the Intercontinental London or Bora Bora."

Patient: "Really? When was the last time you went to Bora Bora?"

Friend: "Okay, well I never went to Bora Bora, but almost every IHG hotel in NYC is more than 40,000 points per night, and I liked using the free night there, since hotels in NYC are so expensive. Losing that pretty much guts any reason for having this shitty card."

Patient: "Well, you do have the Hyatt card, right?"

Friend: "Yeah, $75 for any category 1-4 Hyatt is a great deal."

Patient: "But there aren't any Hyatts in New York proper that are category 4s. Even the Hyatt Place is a category 5. And Hyatt's limited footprint makes it even harder to find category 4s in desirable locations."

Friend: "Yeah, but HYATT is so great!"

Patient: "Is it? Consider how strategic you can be with the IHG card now that you aren't hoarding the free night to use on some aspirational redemption that will cost either a ton of points or a ton of money to extend beyond a single night... There are IHG hotels everywhere, and even hotels in the middle of nowhere are sometimes $200 per night. Last year I used it when I had to stay a night in Burlington, WA, where the Holiday Inn Express would have been $180 per night. In that case, I appreciated effectively paying $49, and it worked out better than planning a stay at a fancy hotel just for the sake of it. Also, there's an EVEN hotel in Brooklyn that's 40,000 points per night, so quit yer bitchin' about not being able to use the free night certificate in New York anymore. Like the Intercontinental Times Square is so great, anyway."

Friend: "You're right... this douchebag blogger I read just talked about using the free night at the Crowne Plaza in Copenhagen, and even though the guy is a douchebag, that does sound like a good redemption. The douchebag even talked about this hotel in Milan that's only 30,000 points even though the cash rates are close to $400."

Patient: "I agree, he is a douchebag. Yay, we finally agree!"

At this point, having completed the exercise, the therapist would take the patient through his responses and point out how he was able to think critically about the twisted thought when it was bothering his friend. Through persistence, the patient can then begin to internalize the process uncovered in the double standard technique, which will strengthen his belief in the rational, untwisted voice, ultimately dissolving the perceived authority of the anxious, twisted voice. Once anxiety's influence over the thought process recedes, the patient's mind will no longer be dominated by fear, at which point the patient will be much less susceptible to panic attacks.

In the case of the IHG free night, the bottom line is that any devaluation is a bummer, but once you see past the immediate shock of the playing field changing shape, you can figure out how to wring value of of what's left without acting irrationally or impulsively. If you've been having a tough day trying to deal with the unfortunate new reality of the IHG free night benefit, I hope these techniques can help you and those around you. You have my best wishes as you embark on this difficult yet very rewarding process.

Or, you know, just get the fuck over it.

Note: shortly after I wrote this post, I was alerted to the fact that IHG's published list of ineligible hotels includes many hotels costing 40,000 points or less, including the EVEN Hotel Brooklyn I mentioned in the article. There's some confusion here, because IHG presents the list as a reference of all hotels costing more than 40,000 points, not as a list of ineligible hotels per se. IHG being the clusterfuck that it normally is, I expect that these hotels were specifically excluded, since they're mostly in desirable locations where cash rates are often high. It looks like most of the Holidays Inn in Paris (many of which are 40,000 points or less) are also excluded... although the Indigo Milan that I keep windbagging about is still okay (for now). So, I think it's probably more likely that IHG just added the wrong verbiage to describe the list, rather than including these specific hotels by mistake. I'm sure we'll know more soon (or not, given that this is IHG we're talking about). Anyway, I think the rest of the article still stands, and I encourage you to repeat the techniques if finding out about the ineligible 40k hotels has caused your panic attacks to resume!

UPDATE 4/5: Much to my surprise, IHG has amended the excluded property list and removed the 40,000 hotels that were on it previously. Hooray! Although, if you have a restricted free night certificate, I wouldn't sit on it too long, since I'm almost positive these hotels will be the first to get bumped up to 45,000 the next time IHG reassigns categories. But don't worry, a Candlewood Suites in the middle of nowhere is going down from 25,000 to 20,000, so it's not technically a "devaluation."

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[Off Topic] How American Express and Chase helped me fix my mountain bike.

Review: Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers (Hint: it's okay.)