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With Rewards Credit Cards, Mileage May Vary

With the economy on the mend, credit card issuers are on the prowl for new customers. In particular, they’re looking for consumers who can afford to spend and are at low risk of default. Members of travel loyalty programs, with their higher household incomes and spendy dispositions, fit the desired demographic profile to a T.

Today, program members routinely receive solicitations for credit cards linked to the major airline or hotel programs bundled with generous sign-up incentives—typically enough bonus miles for a free ticket with the airline cards.

But there are even more lucrative deals circulating in the blogosphere that, if nothing else, indicate just how highly the card issuers value frequent flyers’ business.

Two current promotions—one for a Marriott credit card, the other for a United card—are cases in point.

Marriott Offer Details

If you visit Marriott’s website, you will find the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa card promoted with the following incentives: 30,000 bonus points, a free annual night, bonus elite-qualifying nights, and 15,000 bonus points after a seven-night award stay.

The annual fee is $65.

However, if you followed this link, sent to me by a reader, you would find an application for the same card, with same annual fee and the same sign-up incentives. Except instead of 30,000 bonus points, this offer is for 50,000 bonus points.

United Offer Details

You’ll find a similar disparity between the public and not-so-public promotions for the United Mileage Plus Visa Signature card.

On United’s website, the card is promoted as follows: 30,000 bonus miles after spending $250, a free one-way upgrade certificate, and a $25 travel certificate after the first purchase.

The card’s annual fee is $60.

But there’s an alternative online application form here, where the same card is promoted with a whopping 50,000-mile bonus. And while the annual fee is also $60, it’s waived for the first year.

Deal or No Deal

Both offers, interestingly, are from Chase. It’s Chase that issues the British Airways credit card that was promoted recently with a 100,000-mile bonus, the largest I’ve ever seen.

That offer was launched and withdrawn, relaunched and re-rescinded, and re-relaunched and re-re-rescinded, whipsawing consumers between hope and exasperation with its on-again, off-again status.

The official explanation from Chase was that the offer was targeted, intended only for a select few members of British Airways’ mileage program who met certain criteria. But, according to Chase’s narrative, news of the promotion spread virally, well beyond the intended recipients.

No doubt that’s part of the story. I suspect, however, that Chase wasn’t altogether averse to accepting the extra card applications from non-targeted consumers.

If the British Airways offer is any indication, and the more aggressive Marriott and United offers are similarly targeted, success rates in snagging the bigger bonuses will vary.

I know of people who earned the British Airways bonus with no issues, and at least one person who met the promotion’s terms and wasn’t awarded the advertised bonus.

So while the rewards can be considerable, there’s also an element of risk in responding to targeted offers that didn’t specifically target you.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you pursue the highlighted offers. The purpose of this blog post is to shine some light on a marketing practice that isn’t well understood, and can therefore lead to confusion and disappointment.

If you do decide to pursue what may be targeted offers, you should only do so with the understanding that, because you were not among the offer’s intended recipients, you might only receive the publicly advertised benefits, not the more attractive version of the offer.

It’s also a good idea to take a screenshot of the promotion’s landing page, in case you later need proof of the offer’s details.

Reader Reality Check

If you’ve had experience—positive or negative—qualifying for targeted promotions, please share your experience.

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