While it’s always going to be hard to beat 2020 for craziness, I wouldn’t exactly call 2021 routine either.
In many ways, it was a year bookended by uncertainty. At the start, we’d just commenced the vaccine rollout, not knowing how fast it’d allow us to reopen society and borders. By the end, we were battling an unnerving sense of deja vu with the Omicron variant, which threatened to erase so many hard-earned gains. Just like the year preceding it, 2021 was full of cancelled plans, dashed hopes and premature farewells, and if your biggest complaint was a postponed holiday, count yourself lucky.
2021 also marked the third anniversary of full-time MileLioning, and as is customary, here’s my reflections on the year that’s passed.
If you ran a business centred around airlines, hotels and credit card miles, you’d probably be slightly concerned when a global pandemic shuts down air travel, closes borders and keeps everyone locked up at home.
When I made the decision to do The MileLion full-time, I set a figure in my head of what would constitute “enough”- an amount that would allow me to provide for my family, cover expenses, save for the future, and give to my church. The thought process went that if income fell below that threshold for three consecutive months, I’d have a long and hard think about continuing.
And yet there’s been no need for such a conversation ever since COVID began, which can only be chalked up to God’s provision. In fact, 2021 was another fantastic year for The MileLion. Readership continues to grow, there’s a steady stream of publicity (including a feature in the WSJ, a speaking slot at Seedly’s Personal Finance Festival and a column in the Straits Times), and the income is good enough that I probably won’t need an OnlyFans account anytime soon (though work continues on my upcoming baking channel OnlyFlans).
To put that in numbers, here’s how The MileLion has grown since day one:
|Year||Page Views||Unique Visitors|
|2019||5.1 million||1.0 million|
|2020||6.2 million||1.5 million|
|2021||7.6 million||1.9 million|
When I first started this website, I really didn’t expect it to lead anywhere. I figured I’d write for a couple of months before running out of ideas completely, then abandon it like one of those LiveJournal pages from your angsty teenage years.
But The MileLion is now six going on seven years, and as much as I’d like to say this growth was the result of some brilliantly conceptualised and well-executed strategy, it’s nothing of the sort. My approach is best summed up by this ill-advised conversation a friend set up with another aspiring blogger (“just talk to him, he wants some tips on how to run a website”).
“Do you outsource writing? What’s the market rate for that? When a page doesn’t rank, do you keep rewriting it until it does? Any hacks to jumpstart viewership on a new post? Should I buy AdWords for a post immediately after publishing it? Do you have a PR agency? Do you pay to get featured in outlets like Vulcan Post or Tech in Asia?”
What the what? I stared at him blankly. While I can’t discount the possibility that he was, in fact, speaking English, I couldn’t make heads or tails of anything he’d just said. What the heck is an AdWord? Is the Vulcan Post something Spock reads with his morning coffee?
I had to explain that I was basically a guy with a blog, and didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. I’m sure he thought I was being a dick or something and holding out on him, but that’s the honest truth. There is no strategy here; I just write about whatever I find interesting. I know nothing about SEO or getting articles to rank. I know even less about web design- I mean, have you seen how ugly MileLion v1.0 was? By all logic, this should have failed a long time ago.
But it’s this general incompetence that makes me all the more aware how much of The MileLion’s success isn’t down to me. Every accomplishment, every page view, every dollar of revenue, everything comes from God, who has provided so munificently during this period.
With each year that I do this as a full-time pursuit, I learn more and more about not worrying, about committing everything to God and trusting Him to provide. It’s certainly easy to say when things are going well, but my hope is that even if one day The MileLion goes belly up, I can still echo the sentiments of Habakkuk: “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.”
That day may or may not come, but hey, there’s no sense worrying about it. To paraphrase what Jesus said, can anyone by worrying add a single hair to his head?
Goodness knows I need to keep as many of them as I can.
Here’s a stat that jumped off the page at me. In 2019, the MileLioness and I went on our honeymoon, a 23-day trip that covered the USA and the Maldives. During that period, I published 10 articles.
In 2021, we visited the Romantic Road on a 10-day trip to Germany. During this period, I published 23 articles. That alone should give you an idea of how things have ramped up in just two years.
Or put it another way. Here’s the total number of posts published on The MileLion every year since inception:
- 2015: 89 posts
- 2016: 268 posts
- 2017: 409 posts
- 2018: 641 posts
- 2019: 515 posts
- 2020: 768 posts
- 2021: 810 posts
Apart from 2019 where I really slacked off (I blame marriage), the pace has been picking up every year. I put that down to something I call “the itch”- the feeling of unease that sets in if I don’t write at least two posts a day (don’t ask me why two; there’s absolutely no scientific basis for that number), or if there’s some big story I have yet to cover.
The itch can be a good thing, in the sense that it keeps me on my toes. Being self-employed is great, but it takes a lot of discipline not to goof off the whole day at the Science Centre, or Snow City, or wherever it is the cool kids hang out these days (I’m not out of touch; you’re out of touch)
However, the itch can also be the source of a whole lot of unnecessary stress. It’s not so much the workload, since two posts a day, all things considered, isn’t that onerous for someone who enjoys writing. The issue is more around timing.
There are two types of posts. The first are research pieces that come together over a few days or weeks, like a hotel review or a story on how Tharman just might be a miles bro. These take a while to finish, but there’s no pressure because they’re not particularly time-sensitive.
Then there’s the newsy pieces, the kind that can break at any hour. These are the ones that need quick synthesis and analysis- not easy when you’re in the middle of something and have ten (well-meaning) people sending you the same link asking “have you seen this?”
To illustrate, during the Germany trip my routine was to wake up at 3 a.m each morning to publish a few articles, reply to emails and comments, take a few phone calls and manage any ongoing campaigns (I was in bed at 9 p.m most nights anyway since I’m pathologically boring).
The idea was that frontloading the work would keep the rest of the day free and clear to spend with The MileLioness, but unfortunately, news doesn’t follow your schedule. Important stories like the Australia VTL and KrisFlyer conversion bonus broke while I was out and about, and just like that, the itch was back.
While I didn’t whip out my laptop and start typing right that instant, it hovered on my shoulder the rest of the day. Whether at lunch or touring a castle, I kept thinking about how to analyse the story, what charts I needed to make, how to craft the headline. You know, work stuff.
What was more concerning is that I started to feel the itch even when there was nothing going on (probably because my subconscious kept adding the qualifier “for now”). When I was in Germany, I felt like I couldn’t relax until maybe 2 or 3 p.m, when it was late enough in Singapore that there wouldn’t be any further developments regarding new VTLs or anything of that sort. I was basically carrying around my laptop around like a life preserver, not intending to work, but just in case…
So the problem is feeling like you’re permanently on call, and as much as I enjoy what I do, it’s not healthy (nor sustainable) to have that kind of mindset.
For some people, the inability to disconnect is a badge of honour- just look at all those cringey LinkedIn posts about #weekendwarrior or #sleepfortheweak or #hustlesarus (I may have made the last one up).
Not me though, I think it’s silly. Dude, I get it. You sleep two hours a night because you have a deep love for unlocking synergistic opportunities in blockchain-powered random buzzword. But you know what? I really like my sleep, and like everyone else, there’s no shame in wanting a clean break from work every now and then to invest in mental well-being and not run yourself into the ground.
The challenge will be figuring out how to do that when I’m basically a one-man operation at the moment. I’ve been toying with the idea of bringing someone on (in a paid capacity) to help with some writing while I’m away, and if that’s something you might be interested in, reach out and we’ll have a chat.
I’ve always been a fierce advocate for editorial independence. It’s at the heart of what I do, and nothing annoys me more than someone saying “you can’t write that” (unless of course it’s my lawyer, in which case I’m still annoyed but listen like a good client).
It means I’m selective about the types of engagements I do. Of the 810 posts I wrote last year, 12 were sponsored, and as always, clearly disclosed upfront. These contribute well under 7% of total revenue, a level I’m perfectly comfortable with.
It also means I’m very protective of the editorial process. I constantly marvel at the thought process of companies which engage a blogger for an “authentic voice”, then run the piece through a legal process that sanitises it of all personality and makes it indistinguishable from a press release (or perhaps that was the plan from the start, my sweet summer child).
I can’t tell you the number of engagements that have fallen through because the final approved piece looks nothing like what I wrote, or because of inane nitpicks that I just get tired arguing over. I’ll forever be amused (and frustrated) by the comments a certain client’s legal department sent across regarding the following paragraph:
At the time, six months had passed since the MOH issued an advisory against all overseas travel and Singapore shut its borders. We’d gone through an unprecedented two-month circuit breaker, Singapore Airlines was on life support, and a vaccine was nowhere in sight. There was really no knowing when we’d set foot on a plane again; heck the Hong Kong ATB hadn’t even been mooted yet.
- Cannot say Singapore Airlines was on life support
- Cannot say vaccine was nowhere in sight
- Cannot say heck
My word. Perhaps they’d be more comfortable if I wrote in iambic pentameter too, instead of common vulgar prose. It all felt way too straightjackety, and in the end the article never saw the light of day.
That whole thing was silly, but at least it wasn’t shady. What was shady was another incident that happened shortly after an engagement was signed. Out of nowhere, I received an email from someone on the client side asking me to deindex a couple of articles I’d written more than a year ago as “they do not portray us in a positive manner”.
For the uninitiated, “deindexing” means telling search engines like Google and Bing not to show an article in their search results. It’s still available, but essentially invisible to someone who doesn’t already know the URL.
I don’t need to tell you that this is an outrageous (umbrageous?) request. It’d be like buying advertising space in a newspaper and saying “hey on a separate note would you remove this article you wrote about us a few years ago kthxbye”.
But that, unfortunately, is exactly how some people think- that signing a commercial engagement gives them the standing to make asinine requests like this.
Needless to say, I sent back an email telling him (somewhat) politely to shove it, and the articles in question remain very much available. It does make me wonder, however, how common such attempts at overreach are, and how often they succeed.
All that’s to say the world of blogging can be very murky indeed, and I need to avoid the hubris of thinking “oh, I could never do something like that”. Like I said last year, the danger isn’t so much the blatant, in-your-face proposals like “here’s a big bag of money, now promote our MLM scheme cum fertility cult cum boyband”. Those are pretty easy to reject, and probably in your own self-interest too.
The danger is the more subtle things, the ones that would be difficult for anyone to detect. A sanitised review here, a deindexed article there- who would ever know?
I’m reminded of a HBR piece by Clayton Christensen:
Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong. A voice in our head says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK.”
The marginal cost of doing something wrong “just this once” always seems alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails.
Justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of “just this once.”
I think that’s as good a summary as any. I’ve said from day one that the goal is to be an “accurate weight” in the world of miles and points, and it starts with being faithful in the little things. And with God’s grace, I’ll continue striving to stay that course, come what may.
Looking ahead to 2022
So what does 2022 hold for The MileLion?
More VTL trips, for sure. I’ve visited Germany, South Korea and Australia already, and would like to add Thailand and the USA to the mix. Italy and Spain are also on my list, but I’ll probably avoid Europe until their winter wave dies down. It goes without saying that if/when a Japan VTL opens up, I’d be on the first flight out!
You may have noticed that there weren’t a whole lot of staycation reviews in Q4 2021, as I diverted my time and budget to VTL trips. It doesn’t mean I’m done with them altogether though; I did 15 staycation reviews in 2021, and I’ll still be looking to review some local hotels in 2022.
|🏨 2021 Staycation Reviews|
Of the 15 hotels in 2021, all but one (St. Regis) was self-paid. I think that’s exactly the way it should be, although I believe there’s still a time and place for clearly-disclosed media stays (if only because they allow for insights you might not otherwise get).
To avoid any misunderstandings, I’ve decided the best way forward is to avoid giving ratings for media stays. These articles will still have the same detailed information as always, but no rating or ranking. Frankly, I’d much rather people read through the entire article anyway than skip to the end and look for a figure that may not tell the whole story.
If you asked me which local hotels I’m planning to review, I could only really think of the Ritz-Carlton Millenia and Capella Singapore. Both of them have list prices well in excess of S$600 though (assuming you want the club lounge experience at the Ritz), which puts them into “special occasion” territory- so perhaps expect them later rather than sooner.
Aside from those, I’ll be focusing on newly-opened hotels. I’d be curious to see what (if anything) has changed at the voco Orchard Singapore, as well as what the new Hilton Singapore Orchard has in store. And of course, like everyone else I’m dying to see the Raffles Sentosa Resort.
As far as overseas hotels go, 2021’s made me realise I’m getting old. On my most recent trip to Sydney, I stayed at seven hotels over seven nights- the idea was that it’d give me 7x the opportunities for reviews.
But by the time the fourth night came round, I was already tired of packing and moving every single day. I couldn’t spend an entire afternoon out because I’d need to come back and shift my bags, I had to hold off on all bulky purchases till the last day, and some of the distances fell into that awkward category of too close to cab, too far to walk (yes, I’m well aware this is the epitome of first world problems).
There was a time when such things would never have bothered me, but I’m starting to feel it a bit more with every year that passes. Call it age if you will, but there’s only so many times you want to lug a heavy bag up and down the steps at a subway station.
In the upcoming year, I’ll be focusing on doing slightly longer stays of at least two nights each. Even from a reviews angle, I think there’s an upside too since staying more than one night can help give a more rounded opinion of a hotel (e.g. maybe the staff had an off day at breakfast on day 1). It also helps from a wallet perspective, since you can find luxury advisor rates (e.g. Virtuoso) that have Stay 3/4 nights get 1 night free offers.
On the airline front, I’d like to see firsthand what the Singapore Airlines experience is like on a narrowbody flight, so you can expect a B737-800 and B737-8 review soon. I also plan to do an updated take on the new SilverKris Business Class Lounge now that it’s had a couple of months to find its feet, and you can bet I’ll be all over the new First Class Lounge and Private Room once they open in Q1.
Reviewing other airlines is slightly trickier due to border restrictions, testing requirements and the need to take a VTL flight back to Singapore, but if the opportunity presents itself I’d be looking to try:
- Emirates’ new B77W First Class
- EVA Air’s B787-9 Business Class
- Qatar Airways QSuites Business Class (so elusive!)
- Starlux Business Class
The monthly Milelion meetups are still on ice, because I’m not a fan of doing these things online and a five person limit doesn’t make for much of a gathering. With any luck we’ll go back to eight people (or more!) soon, and then we can get them going again.
Funny emails I get
As with any reflections post, it would be strangely amiss not to go through some of the more interesting emails I receive, courtesy of the Contact Us form.
First of all, I’m now convinced that someone out there is trolling me by promoting The MileLion as a hotel. It’s the only explanation for gems such as these…
But since there’s evidently so much demand, the only logical solution is to start a full-service hotel featuring perks such as swimming pool access (hey, it’s not guaranteed), an extensive pillow menu with all your favourite waifu dakimakura, and a 2% fee for looking in the mirror twice.
Alternatively, I may have a promising career ahead as an agony aunt, seeing as how people feel comfortable sharing very random problems with me.
Remember Restaurant A380? I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who misses it. Heads up SQ- this email came from someone at a company with a US$100 billion market cap, so there’s opportunities ahoy!
And finally, sad attempt at SEO link building is sad.
Even after all these years of MileLioning, I’m still amazed that people I’ve never met before would take the time to support and promote the site, as well as drop me random encouraging emails and comments. Thank you for your readership, feedback and well wishes- they mean a lot!
I’m grateful also for the support of my family and wife (who religiously texts me to ask what card she should be using- see guys, such behavior can be trained). Not forgetting the Telegram admins for keeping the peace across all the chats (you won’t believe the kind of inane disputes they get asked to intervene in), and to Matthew for his tireless sleuthing/research.
Here’s wishing all MileLion readers a fantastic 2022! The past two years have given us all the drama we’ll need for several lifetimes, so here’s to a quiet and uneventful 2022 filled with new VTLs, open borders, and plenty of travelling better for less.
I’ve jinxed it, haven’t I.