Trading a stable and structured career in management consulting for the unpredictable and nebulous world of blogging wasn’t an easy decision, but like I said in last year’s reflections, there’ve been no regrets. The work is fun, the challenges are unique, the pay is sufficient, and I wake up every morning excited to do what I do. And to think it all started from this ugly-looking site…
So as Milelion: Year Two draws to a close (well, it’s technically been five years, but only two years of doing it full-time), I wanted to share some thoughts about 2020 in general, how it’s impacted The Milelion, and what I’m looking forward to in 2021.
If there’s one thing 2020 has been good for, it’s perspective.
After all, this is a year where people have had to postpone weddings, cancel overseas study plans, close their businesses or take significant pay cuts. Some have suffered first-hand from COVID-19, others have had to say goodbye to loved ones unexpectedly. If your biggest complaint this year is that you didn’t get to go on holiday, man, you have it good.
My reflections for the year centre on three things: planning, sufficiency, and thanksgiving.
I’m sure many of us had big plans for 2020. I know I did. There were cabin products to review, talks to give, product launches to cover, and places to see. But COVID-19 threw the mother of all spanners into the works, and I’ve cancelled countless bookings in 2020 alone, with more still to come in 2021. That’s not to mention all the personal events, celebrations and gatherings that never happened.
While it’s disappointing, it also serves as a visceral reminder about planning. I’ve been studying the book of James this year, and this part sums up 2020 in a nutshell: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'” (James 4:13-15)
Of course there’s nothing wrong with planning; it’s a wise and sensible thing to do. But COVID-19’s driven home the point that plans are not worth boasting in, because the outcome is in God’s hands, not mine. I’m a mist. If God wills, I will live to 100. If God wills, I will die before publishing this post. Either way, it’s not up to me, and 2020 lays bare the insanity of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus- “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not.
With all the restrictions brought about by COVID-19, things that were previously taken for granted- traveling, concerts, sports, dining out, watching a movie, were not possible for extended periods this year.
I won’t deny it, I got bummed out at times. But that got me thinking: if I get upset by the absence of these things, what am I really saying? That my happiness and satisfaction depends on them? I should certainly hope not!
In that sense, 2020 has helped illuminate idols- anything that takes the place of God in my heart. My happiness and satisfaction shouldn’t come from overseas trips or playing sports or having nice meals with friends; it should come from having the all-sufficient Christ, compared to which everything else- miles, premium cabins, nice hotels, are “garbage”, as Paul says in Philippians (or “dung”, if you prefer the King James).
So as tempting as it is to whine about wanting my old life back, where I could hop on a plane without nasal probing or cough in public without starting the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!), I’ve really lost nothing that can’t be replaced, or that’s worth clinging on to. Christ is sufficient, before, during, and after COVID-19.
One of the most persistent challenges I’ve faced in 2020 has been the temptation to grumble. I think a good part of it stems from the feeling that this year has been a complete and utter waste. I mean, that’s the meme isn’t it? Worst Year Ever, in the words of Time Magazine. You can even buy T-shirts and Christmas ornaments to that effect.
— TIME (@TIME) December 5, 2020
But if I believe that God is sovereign over all things, from the largest galaxy to the smallest virus, then He is sovereign also over the COVID-19 pandemic. And that means there is no such thing as a wasted year, because God is using all this to bring about His good purposes.
While I struggle to see how that could possibly be, (for a more eloquent exposition on the topic than I could ever manage, try reading Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper, in particular pages 54-99), I know that God’s ways are not my ways, and His thoughts not my thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). How could I presume to know better than the one who knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10)?
In any case, there’s so much to be thankful for, not in the least because I and everyone I know have been left relatively unscathed by COVID-19. Community spread has been virtually eradicated in Singapore. We’re now able to enjoy a level of social freedom other countries can only dream of. Our hospitals have capacity to spare, there’s food in the supermarket, there’s toilet paper in the loo. We’ve secured enough vaccines to give them free-of-charge to everyone who wants one.
I’d say that’s good enough reason to choose thanksgiving over grumbling.
How has COVID-19 affected The Milelion?
When I first started doing The Milelion full-time, I set a number in my head of what would constitute “enough”- a figure that would allow me to provide for my family, cover expenses, save for the future, and give to my church. The thinking went that if income fell below that threshold for three consecutive months, I’d have a long and hard think about continuing.
It’s a testament to God’s provision that in the time I’ve been doing this, that threshold hasn’t been breached once- not even this year. In fact, COVID-19 hasn’t affected the business anywhere as bad as expected. I can’t discuss specifics, but to give you a rough idea, it looks like revenue for 2020 will be 90+% of last year’s.
That’s incredible given how there’s only been one workshop all year (Power Award Searching, back in February), advertising revenue fell off a cliff during the circuit breaker, and commissions from points sales are a fraction of 2019. New projects have come through to make up for the shortfall, and long story short, there hasn’t been a moment this year where I’ve thought to myself “OK, that’s torn it, time to find something else.”
As much as I’d like to take credit for this, none of it is my own doing. It’s not like I came up with some master plan to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19. God has graciously supplied everything I need, and then some. Like it says in Deuteronomy 8:17-18 “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”
To be clear, I’m not espousing some sort of prosperity gospel here. This could all be taken away tomorrow, and then the true test will be whether I can say “Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). But for now, the business side of things is coming along fine, and I haven’t lost any sleep about it.
In fact, while COVID-19 may have wrecked the travel industry, it’s actually brought an uptick in readership. 2020 has generated no shortage of story ideas, and this year it looks like The Milelion will close with 1.5 million unique visitors and 6.1 million pageviews (versus 1 million unique visitors and 5.1 million pageviews in 2019).
The main impact COVID-19 has had is the type of content I’ve been writing. While I’d love to be doing posts about convoluted award routings and mistake fares, or reviewing new cabin products and overseas hotels, that’s obviously not possible right now. But it’s all about making lemonade at this point, and as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been churning out staycation reviews ever since Phase 2 started.
In fact, I’ve stayed in more Singapore hotels over the past six months than I have in my entire life, with 15 different reviews done so far. I think the page views reveal a lot about the kind of hotels people are interested in…
With interest rates crashing and bank accounts getting nerfed all over the place, I’ve also dabbled in a little personal finance writing (e.g SingLife, GIGANTIQ), in particular how it fits together with a miles collection strategy. I might explore more of this next year, if it tickles my fancy.
The meat and potatoes content is still miles and points though, and while 2019 (and all prior years, come to think of it) was all about going on the offensive- how to earn and burn as many miles as possible, 2020 feels a lot more defensive in nature. The focus now is hunkering down and riding out the storm, keeping miles from expiring, hedging yourself against loyalty program devaluations or bankruptcies, preserving elite status, and sniping good opportunities to purchase hotel vouchers or credits.
The content may have changed, but the principles behind it haven’t. Sponsored posts are always disclosed upfront, and make up a very small percentage of total articles. In 2019, I wrote 518 posts, of which eight were sponsored; in 2020, I’ve written nearly 770 posts, of which six were sponsored. Those are levels I’m perfectly comfortable with. I also retain full editorial control over anything that gets published (which is why a few proposed collaborations this year eventually got canned, RIP hours of writing), and the contribution to total revenue is a mere 5%.
The vast majority of hotel/airline reviews are paid with my own money or points; of the 15 staycation reviews I’ve written in 2020, all but one (Hilton) was self-paid. To date, I must have published more than a hundred airline and hotel reviews, and the number I didn’t pay for myself is in the single digits.
Brief sidetrack: People have asked whether the experience I get can be considered “typical”, because as readership and media coverage grow, it’s quite possible that someone might recognise me and extend a level of service that others may not receive.
The honest answer is I have no idea. I’m sure it may happen at some places, just as I’m sure there are others who are completely clueless. Sometimes it’s hard to tell- if I get an upgraded room, is it by virtue of my elite status, or because someone put a note in my reservation? If a staff member goes the extra mile, is he/she just an all-round superstar, or am I getting special treatment?
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but frankly I think it’s an academic point because short of wearing a wig and booking reservations under a fake name, there’s nothing I can do to prevent that. All I can do is pay my own way and report things as I see them, and regular readers will know I never shy away from it. When there’s a hosted stay, I declare it upfront so readers are fully aware of the context.
With the exception of a handful of one-off campaigns (none of which took place in 2020), I don’t actively solicit or maintain any direct relationships with advertisers. All the ads you see on the website are handled by an advertising agency, which allows me to have finer control over how many ads appear and where (unlike the previous Google Auto Ads system, which at times placed them in the weirdest spots). It means the content you read is never affected by whoever happens to be advertising on the site at the moment.
Some of these decisions mean forgoing additional revenue, but I’ve always been about the long game. The Milelion’s not a get-rich-quick-scheme (unless maybe I try selling pillows); and I’m a firm believer that objective content pays for itself many times over.
What’s on the horizon for The Milelion in 2021?
While nothing’s for certain, I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll see leisure travel bubbles opening up by the first half of next year. It could be Hong Kong, it could be somewhere else, but regardless of where, I’ll almost certainly be going if only to report on the process.
However, I do foresee it being very difficult to review specific airline cabin products over the next 12 months. The reason is simple: most of these ply particular routes, which means positioning flights, dealing with a mix of quarantine restrictions, and all sorts of potential complications that are amplified in a post-COVID world. A missed connection or cancelled flight may no longer be easily resolved by clearing immigration and spending a night at the airport hotel, for example, and crossing borders is not going to be as frictionless as before, even for a Singapore passport holder.
But I am planning a very special cabin review soon… just on the sea. I’ve booked a Royal Caribbean four night cruise to nowhere at the end of January, and it’s my first time doing one of these. As a cruise noob, I’ve found the booking process extremely overwhelming- what stateroom should I book, how do I go about making reservations, is a drinks or dining package worth it, and is the poop deck what I think it is? I’ve picked up quite a bit over the past few weeks and will do up a series of guides that may be of interest to other first-timers.
The Phase 3 limit of eight people means it’s unlikely we’ll see in-person workshops return any meaningful way, and I’m not too hot on the idea of running them online either. The number of things that can go wrong with a webinar makes me nervous, and the last thing I want is a whole room full of paying ticketholders complaining the audio is choppy. It’s why the webinars I’ve run this year have all been free-to-join, although they’re more fireside chats than classes per se.
On the other hand, I will be looking to restart our Milelion Monthly Miles Meetup (the last one was in December 2019, can you believe), because eight people is probably about the right number for an intimate drinks event. This will hopefully get underway in January, and I’ll drop an update when it happens.
How you can help
The same way you’ve always been! By inserting Milelion references into any and all conversations, no matter the topic. Example: “Do you think the incoming US administration will make a concerted move away from isolationism towards greater global engagement?”
“Yes, in the same way The Milelion teaches you how to maximize your credit card rewards, airline and hotel loyalty programs. Here, let me just set it as your default homepage and wallpaper, and please drop your pants for the complimentary tattoo.”
If socialising isn’t your forte, no worries. You’re already helping out whenever you apply for credit cards or make purchases through the links on the site. Even the simple act of whitelisting the site on your adblocker goes a long way. And of course, it’s always great to get your tip-offs, article ideas, or just hear how you’ve been travelling better for less with whatever you’ve learned- reach out here!
Other ways of support include prayer, particularly for integrity as I continue to run the site. The temptation to compromise will always be there, and it’s dangerous to say to yourself “oh, that could never happen to me.” The danger isn’t so much the blatant, in-your-face proposals, e.g “here’s a big bag of money, now promote our pyramid scheme cum fertility cult”. Those are pretty easy to reject, and probably in your own self-interest too.
The danger is the more subtle things, like being offered hospitality in exchange for omitting certain less-than-satisfactory elements from a report, or having special access dangled as a means of securing a glowing review. For the record, these aren’t hypotheticals- they’re actual things I’ve encountered. And when that little voice in your head starts saying “well, no one would ever know…” , you’d better start running in the opposite direction fast.
The second thing to pray for is grace. I made this point last year, but it’s well worth re-emphasizing: blogging is not a pursuit for the thin-skinned, and you’re bound to run into some unpleasantness along the way.
No matter what, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. There’ll always be those who take issue with how content is written, how communities are moderated, or even more fundamentally, the decision to make a living from blogging. And with the anonymity offered by the internet, there’ll be no hesitation to express such views.
The challenge as always is how to live out Jesus’ commandment to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28) when things get personal. Easier said than done, for sure! But as hard as it is, how are we ever going to convince people there’s something special about following Christ if we trade insult for insult?
At the end of the day, loving your enemy means realising there is a person behind that keyboard who will either spend eternity with God, or apart from God. It means forgiving, praying for them and genuinely wishing that they too may experience the same joy we know. That requires a hefty portion of grace, but I’ve always liked the way David Pawson put it: “remember, the worst thing they can say about you isn’t as bad as the truth.”
Funny emails I get
No year in review would be complete without a sampling of some of the more…interesting emails I receive. Thanks to the wonders of the Contact Us form, I’m regularly inundated with gems such as these.
I’ll reopen the DBS Serangoon Garden branch when I’m good and ready, thank you very much.
I could have done such great things with this information…
As well as this. Yes, this person sent me her full credit card number. Perhaps The Milelion could be a get-rich-quick scheme.
Last I checked, I’m not running a hotel, but if I did you can bet I wouldn’t charge $5 for an extra towel. What frightens me is that I looked up the senders, and they’re actual HR people from SMEs- and not any old SMEs; one of them is a well-known household name.
You and me both, pal.
It’s good to know I can branch out into a lot of side businesses, if this doesn’t work out…
Summing it up
So that’s my take on 2020. I’d never have dreamed The Milelion would have made it past six months, let alone five years, let alone become a full-time pursuit, but here we are.
Thanks to the family for their unwavering support, the wife for never questioning my Hotel 81 motives (wholesome), the admins for keeping the peace in the chats, and everyone else who’s supported the site in ways big and small.
Here’s wishing one and all a great 2021! May the year ahead bring travel bubbles, vaccines, non-expiring miles, sensational card offers, and everything we need to travel better for less.