Now what?

Last month, two pivotal things happened to this site that you might not be aware of. Two opportunities have presented themselves as a result.

But which door should we walk through together? I need your help deciding.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Insured International -- Travel Insured International is a leading travel insurance provider. For over 25 years, their goal has been to help each individual travel confidently. Some of the major travel insurance benefits provided by in their plans include Trip Cancellation, Trip Interruption, Accident and Sickness Medical Expense, and Baggage and Personal Effects coverage. Plans also include other non-insurance assistance services. In 2015, Travel Insured was acquired by Crum & Forster, whose parent company is Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. The financial strength and core values of the companies give Travel Insured the best position in the market to continue its commitment of helping individuals protect their travel plans. Travel Relaxed…Travel Secure…When you have Travel Insured.

The first was a fundraiser that blew away everyone’s expectations. We recruited dozens of volunteers and raised more than $10,000 for the cause of consumer advocacy within a few short weeks.

I’m speechless at the response from readers, supporters and corporate underwriters. You really care.

The second development: joining BoardingArea, a blog network that specializes in loyalty programs.

You can see the results now.

• The banner above the top, which links to the other member sites.

• The ads, most of which are for mileage-earning credit cards.

• The numerous mentions — some positive, some not — from other loyalty program bloggers about this site’s participation in the network.

Although BoardingArea didn’t pay for the site redesign — you did — our new network friends helped us configure our forums and assisted with setting up the new contacts database. I’m grateful to Randy Petersen and his IT team for their help.

So what’s the problem?

I’m being pulled in two different directions. There are two paths I can take in 2015.

Door #1: Become an airline and loyalty program advocate
I’m being drawn deeper into loyalty and airline advocacy. This makes sense, economically. I can earn a living wage from the credit card ads already running on the site. Who knows, I might even be able to pick up an affiliate agreement with a credit card company, which would allow me to start collecting a commission from sign-ups. Besides, there are plenty of frequent fliers who need someone to help them read the fine print and retrieve those missing points and miles. That’s a full-time job.

Door #2: Become a general consumer advocate
Many of you see me as more than an advocate for airline passengers. More, even, than an advocate for travelers. You’ve told me you want me to help all consumers. You’re willing to write checks to make that happen. You didn’t mind the Google ads that appeared on this site before October, but you find the new credit card pitches to be disingenuous, if not dangerous. After all, I’ve spent the last two decades criticizing loyalty programs and now my site has become a billboard for them. I hear you. If I do what I think you want me to, it would profoundly reshape my career as well, taking me out of the travel industry’s orbit. It would also be an expensive step with no guaranteed income of any kind waiting behind the door.

These aren’t easy decisions, and I’m not making them lightly. Take the money and be an advocate for a few consumers or take a leap of faith and help everyone.

What should we do?

Which path should we take together?

View Results

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Update (Dec. 1): Thank you for your feedback. I hear you, loud and clear. Starting in 2015, this site will broaden its focus to general consumer advocacy topics. We’ll continue to fight for the 99 percent of travelers who need an advocate, as we have in the past, but we’ll also be there for all consumers who are wronged and need help. Many of you also said you strongly prefer this to be a member-supported, ad-free site. I share your goal. I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.

49 thoughts on “Now what?

  1. I’m sending the email, but door number 2!!!

    Airline only stories would be boring after a few weeks!

    What does your alter ego PsyGuy think? :-p

  2. My 2 cents. You have said that you think loyalty programs are on the way out–so Door #1 could be a short term gain. Maybe not. But there is the aspect of “selling out” associated with it as well which I am sure you do not want. You have built a career on sticking to your guns to the point where it got your fired (USA Today Round 1). That is admirable.

    You are GOOD at what you do. VERY GOOD. The product does not matter much in this case–tours, cruises, refrigerators or BluRay discs.

    With those options, I say #2!

    Now, if some smart airline wanted to revamp their customer engagement programs and hire you to run them as an option #3—I’d vote for the sell out to the airlines! We all could use a better experience and you are, if nothing else, very fair and reasonable.

  3. Frankly I don’t understand why BA needs a consumer advocate (Door #1).
    Since you have always been inside Door #2, I can’t see a reason to leave it.
    I have trouble seeing how you fit in the same BA crowd.

  4. Elliott, every day your questions present no real choice, because your wording favors one answer more than the other. I love your column but your ending questions always make me shake my head. FWIW, I like you as a travel advocate.

  5. My opinion? first, think of what you WANT to do. That matters.

    Second? Providing I could legitimately believe in option #1, I’d go that route. You have 3 kids to provide for, and that means a lot. Also, I’m in IT and I found early on that trying to be everything actually backfires quite a bit because then you’re just ok at many areas, not really great in one. I think finding a niche area is important, and maybe at first it need to be around loyalty programs, but then you can keep in the travel realm.

    And also, with the money, you can grow bigger and then potentially get a partner/helper to grow the consumer advocacy part after you’re settled into option #1. Sure, people should always do what they love, but often people who give out that advice forgo mentioning the obvious – that money DOES help out and if you make more of it, then you can do more things to help out others. 🙂

    1. Chris does have partners/helpers, several dozen of them (like me!) who were drawn to his professionalism and excellent advocacy. That’ll never change.

      1. I signed up to be a contributor by writing articles on this site, so I’m totally with you on the awesome work Chris does! I was speaking from the perspective of having my own business (because that’s what this really is for him!). I was really good at one part, and wanted to grow bigger, but couldn’t do it all myself, both from time constraints and expertise. So I brought someone on to become a team, and now we can provide way more things to more people and make a bigger impact than i could have ever done on my own.

  6. Chris,
    I voted for number 2, for you to stay as a general consumer advocate. But there is more to this…..you can be a general advocate without constantly slamming the loyalty programs. While their rules are written to work against most people, there are some of us that do find the programs for us.

    I find that being an elite with multiple travel programs gets me things like free bags on planes, boarding first, not having to wait in lines at the airline, car rental and hotel desks (You might notice I didn’t mention upgrades, that rarely happens nowadays).

    But I also earn that treatment by using these companies weekly. It only makes sense for a company to give their best, most loyal customers special service. My company builds heavy machinery, a far cry from the travel industry. We do our best to provide all of our clients the best experience possible. However, those clients that come to us over and over again for machines get that extra special response.

    It is just the nature of business. Raising a fuss that the travel industry does this to its best clients is just tilting at windmills.

    Keep up the great working for helping all of us out there when a company forgets who pays their bills. We need a consumer advocate for everyone with all sorts of issues, not just with airlines and loyalty programs.

    Ron

  7. LOL. This is rich coming from the guy who wrote this:

    “If you’re like 90 percent of business travelers — which is to say, if you drive everywhere but only board a plane occasionally — I need to warn you about an unusual sales pitch you’ll probably hear when you fly home for the holidays.

    Look for a fast-talking salesman lurking near the gate or a flight attendant trolling the aisle before landing, hawking a credit card that comes with enough bonus miles for a “free” ticket.

    My advice? Don’t just say “no,” but, as an old coach I knew at the Naval Academy would put it, say “hell no!”

    In fact, I’d recommend you to take it one step further. You can do this right now. Remove all the frequent flier cards from your pocket. Grab a pair of scissors, cut the plastic into tiny little pieces and toss it in the trash.

    Stay away from mileage schemes, my friends. They’re nothing but trouble”

      1. Well, color me confused then. In all seriousness though, how do square that belief with a plan to sell rewards cards? CC companies have been known to pull affiliate links from bloggers (I mean salespeople) who deviate from the message. How do you plan on selling a rewards card if you don’t play along? I don’t think “you should toss this card in the trash, but if you don’t please use my link” will work.

        It is hard for me to see how you square the reality of affiliate links with your oft stated position regarding rewards cards and loyalty programs in general.

  8. If you start advocating for loyalty programs/cards you’ll lose the considerable credibility you have built up. And how would your advocacy for cards/miles square with your oft-stated claim that nothing is free? It seems to completely fly in the face of what your position has been in the past. I believe you would ultimately hurt yourself, and eventually be seen as no more than another salesman.

    This is a real hard call – considering that advocating for cards/loyalty/points could provide you with financial security, at least for a while. I wish you the wisdom to make the right choice.

    Good luck.

    1. Nothing is free – that’s why Boarding Area exists – to shill credit cards from expert poseurs to the lazy and incompetent.

  9. Door number one, let’s be honest this isn’t a one time path that forever marks your destiny. This is a job, and while loving it, it’s still a job, meaning its goal is to pay the bills. I’m sure when you were younger (not that your old) you did things and held jobs that didn’t idealize your inner core. This is the thing you do so that you can afford living. It’s not forever, and it’s not really anything you haven’t done before. You’re a VERY, VERY good travel advocate, your an okay consumer advocate. You don’t have to actively sell the programs or cards like some sales guy on a college campus trying to get young and naive kids to sign up for a credit card. The adds just run and if someone clicks on one, yay you get paid,

    If all this grows old or uncomfortable than you look at doing something else and going in another direction.

    1. Actually he does have to actively sell credit cards, otherwise they take the links away. The referral middlemen have to monitor the site for compliance, so if they aren’t making enough sales, it’s not worth monitoring, so they take links away.

        1. I don’t think you understand the difference between affiliate links and banner ads. One pays $100+, the other pays pennies per click/impression. Yes, you do have to directly sell affiliate links to keep them.

        1. No, it is Chris’ problem if he signs as a credit card affiliate. BA has nothing to do with the affiliate market and if Chris makes that choice, he will have to sell the cards or face losing them if he doesn’t meet the quotas.

  10. Stay on Boarding Area as a general consumer advocate. An independent voice is what made journalism in America great. No need to sell out to feature just airline programs, and who cares about ads? I see them for many things I disagree with, and just ignore them. Nothing disingenuous about writing about something which is counter to advertising interests.

  11. There might be some “pulling,” but unless you’ve directed to enter only one of the two doors, I don’t think you have to enter either. Door no. 1 leads to temptations that are not good for journalists, and a focus on loyalty programs limits your audience to those frequent travelers who, by and large, have much experience with air travel, and appeals to those who want more for “free.” Door no. 2 leads to the result of just being another all-purpose consumer advocate in a large field. You’re expertise–why people turn to you–is that you can effectively advocate for consumers in the field of travel, a field in which many other advocates have no idea what the heck they’re talking about. I would say that your advocacy should not be limited to air travel alone, but to all types of travel (including, e.g., railroad, bus, ocean liner) and those services ancillary to travel (e.g., hotels, rental vehicles) . . . really what your focus has been. I think you’ll excel by differentiating yourself and being the best at what you’re focused on.

  12. I would say to do whatever makes you happy. You have helped me twice with Delta airlines problems and solved them quickly. I love reading the travel horrors (stories) you write about. I would say stick with one thing and be the best you can be with it. If you branch out, you are trying to be something to everyone. I trust you will make the right decision and you will retain all your loyal readers.

  13. You don’t offer a third choice, remaining an advocate for travel and general consumer items, which seems to be what you are now. That’s what I’d vote for. You’ve been so outspokenly against loyalty programs that it wouldn’t be honest of you to suddenly become a cheerleader for them. I know the money would be a real asset, but can you get along without it? My two cents!

  14. Door #3… stay with BA, ignore the ads (as we readers will), continue to write with the same integrity you always have, and let BA worry about the blowback from advertisers.

  15. Everything in a journalist’s life in temporary, so I would do what feels right in the gut. And asking for advice is a sort of advertisement, isn’t it? Also, shouldn’t you move, if in deed you do move, into a field where you have the most solid contacts? And what of your staff now? Since most are airline problem specialists, will moving on mean abandoning most of your staff? I was unable to vote because there are many more options than the two presented. You could join the LA Times, move to Paris and write for Vanity Fair…. An experienced young man has many options, and you are both experienced, successful and youngish. You m sake the move, don’t let readers tell you.

  16. One word: AdBlock. (Thank you, Tony A!) I don’t see any of the credit card ads. I do see the BoardingArea Banner remaining on top as I scroll down the page, with the “Elliott” part now well hidden.

    My two cents: you seem to know travel better than general consumer affairs. In fact, that 20/20 video refers to you as a “Travel Insider”, which you tacitly acknowledge. I think you’re more marketable in the travel industry and hence, a better co-provider for your family.

  17. Judging from you illustration, I can fall to my death by walking out door 1 or bang my head against a brick wall with door 2. Since you abhor loyalty programs, I’d say door 2.

    1. Ha! My first cynical take on the illustration was that it was a rather unsubtle attempt to influence our votes by depicting Door #1 as the blue sky of possibility. But I like your interpretation better. Door #1 equals falling to your death. Lesson to Chris… you can always keep banging your head against a brick wall until you eventually break through, but falling to your death is kind of a one time thing. 🙂

  18. I used to read your online columns sporadically when you were with the SF Chronicle. I was disappointed that USA Today dropped you even though you had toned down your writing for them. Newspapers continue to retreat. I fear that print journalism is so far down the road to fiscal oblivion that most of the material in all but a very few “newspapers of record” strictly avoids making any statement that could be even remotely construed as objectionable to any advertiser. There is no place left for a columnist who speaks the truth clearly or makes ripples, let alone waves. So, if you wish to be true to the historical Chris, you have to carve out your own space and get paid for it.

    Are you in any position to get a column in one of the more anti-establishment magazines? On line publication? Syndication? I am sure you have been looking into these.

    Google ads make a few bucks, but not a living, I suspect. Affilliate agreements bring in bigger bucks, but may require you to sell your soul. Is there another way to get both integrety and money? Could you take affilliate agreements with products you do not favor and keep tham despite speaking against the hand that feeds your kids? Would any such affiliate agree in advance not to drop you because of any content in your writings? After all, you have readers who disagree with you and therefore would consider such affiliates. One wonders.

    Money vs. Ideals. The conflict has existed for as long as money and ideals have existed. You have a family to support. You have skills. You have ideals. Pick two out of three. Maybe get all three. I guess we will find out.

    Just don’t choose the door hiding Monty Hall’s goat.

    1. He was never a featured writer or blogger on the SF Chronicle/SFgate website. That was syndicated. They do have a featured travel blogger (Chris McGinnis) who also posts to BoardingArea. If they pick up Spud Hilton, then the cycle will be complete.

      I myself discovered CE’s blog consumer advocacy blog via reading his syndicated column in SFGate. I found out that they were basically older blog posts that were republished.

  19. Chris, I agree with others in thinking that specialization helps you do a better job. If I worked in the travel industry I would pay more attention when you called me than when contacted by someone who doesn’t understand my business as well. I’d also know that serious travelers, my customers, are paying attention to you. I think your clout will be diminished if you spend your time dealing with broken down toasters and shady contractors.

  20. Boarding Area is chock full of credit card shills masquerading as experts – don’t be one of them. The credit card companies drive their so-called “content”, not vice versa. Just go look at the absurd rush to pimp whatever card du jour is being flogged by the affiliate companies. Amazing, astounding, fantastic, excellent are the (mis)leading click bait on every second rate card (and when the same offer is available but doesn’t offer commissions, the silence is deafening).

    No sane person would EVER click on these shill’s affiliate links.

  21. Chris, I don’t think you should worry about Door #2. You won’t be the first one.

    Barbara Delollis (long time and well known travel insider) left Boarding Area, too.

    Read My good-bye to BoardingArea, and hello to American Airlines!

    travelupdate. boardingarea. com/

  22. As I mentioned in my email response to Chris, I don’t think this needs to be an either/or proposition. I think that you could have different areas of interest within the website that focused on each of the options, as well as other topics that may come up. (Chris’s Computer Corner, Elliot’s Grocery Grocery Guidance, or what-have-you.) I like the idea of an affiliate credit card that funds the fight against crummy affiliate cards, too.

  23. Chris,

    I’m a regular reader, and I see you as a general consumer advocate with a strong penchant for the travel world, and I think that’s a great niche to be in.

    As for the ads–GREAT–let them pay you to trash them. I’m a Marriott points-slut, but I take your advice on loyalty programs seriously, and pay attention (Although I may not ALWAYS follow it) Let them advertise to your readers and pay you to educate your readers to make their ads meaningless.

    Keep up the good work!
    (Full disclosure–I work for the Dark-Side, I’m an airline employee)

  24. Wow. Just Wow. As a (tiny compared to your reach) fellow blogger I stayed out of the fray when you asked if you should join BA. However, the idea of your brand becoming, well, a shill, is just sad. I donated $50 last year to your organization and would feel as if I were the one being scammed if you did so.

  25. Hi Chris,

    I’ve really appreciated reading both your airline-related and general consumer-advocacy posts, so I’ll echo what another person mentioned: do what you feel most passionate about and what makes you happy. Life is short!

    With that said, I’m going to bravely suggest that your detailed analyses, skeptical nature, and consumer-orientation could actually be an amazing asset in the context of airline loyalty program discussions.

    I’m one of those folks that has very conflicted feelings about frequent flyer programs; on one hand, I’ve seen them be hugely devalued over time… enough that I’ve gone from a proud United 1K flyer to — next year — a flyer with zero status on any airlines.

    With that said… thanks to strategic and diligent use of credit cards, I’m sending both my parents to Japan next year… in Singapore Airlines suites. Total cash outlay: about $1000. And personally, I’ve been to 30+ countries… in large part, thanks to my earning of frequent flyer miles.

    If someone is carrying a balance, they shouldn’t play this game.
    If someone isn’t willing to scrupulously keep track of every spend requirement and signup bonus, ditto.
    And of course, no one should ever, EVER spend money unnecessarily or dangerously to earn miles!!!

    But with conscientiousness, airline loyalty (or at least alliance loyalty) can make sense. And with a consumer-oriented advisor with a conscience, perhaps more people can enjoy traveling more, traveling more comfortably, and traveling with less expense than before.

  26. Ads are easy enough to ignore–I do it 100% of the time. They don’t bother me, and if the site becomes “member-supported” that would mean it’s only avaialble for the “haves” with some bucks to spare?

  27. Taking a different tack, and by disclosure I am a BoardingArea blogger, the two audiences and approaches to travel are very different.

    The general audience you serve so well spends the rest of their lives doing other things, travel is not their main focus, when things go wrong or they enter into things more experienced travelers might avoid, they need a helping hand to guide and advocate for them. This sometimes touches on frequently flyer programs in a general sense, such as people who feel wronged when an airline takes away miles from a deceased family member’s account. This is a great service that all of us benefit from, even when not reaching your directly.

    The frequently flyer program audience is focused/obsessed on travel and the frequent flyer programs, spends the time to be capable of being their own informed advocate, and for the most part knows the risks and rewards and can deal with it. The approach is not making a system function as advertised, but finding ways to maximize the system, often far beyond the original intention. In many cases the issues that happen, and their resolutions, are case by case and very much outside the stated and/or intended Ts&Cs, which is part of your criticism over the years.

    Though there are superficially overlapping content, the audiences are different and your approach is I believe most valuable with general travel consumer advocacy.

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