Yes, collecting SkyMiles still makes perfectly good sense, you dolt

Just my luck. The very weekend after I wrote that I was cancelling my Delta Platinum Business American Express because I'd given up on American Express's games awarding high spend bonuses on manufactured spend, Thought Leader From Behind Gary Leff posted another one of his moronic screeds against collecting SkyMiles.

Most people don't know what they're doing, and rightly so

The reason "I started this blog for friends and family" became an immediate cliche to describe affiliate bloggers is that it has a hint of truth in it: our friends and family have no clue what travel hacking is about, and don't have any interest in learning.

What it misses is that it is good and right that most people have not the slightest interest in travel hacking, not because it keeps the game alive, but because most people have better things to do.

Among the 95%+ of the population that doesn't — and shouldn't — care about travel hacking, there's nothing wrong with "collecting" SkyMiles because there's nothing wrong with virtually anything you could suggest.

Obviously at the extreme you could suggest a manifestly inappropriate credit card like a American Express Platinum card, or a Citi Prestige, or a non-rewards credit card like Chase Slate, but the difference between a civilian using a 2% cash back credit card, or an airline credit card, or a hotel credit card, is simply a rounding error to a normal travel budget, and if they prefer to fly on Delta, or prefer to stay at Marriotts, there's no harm in using a co-branded credit card because there's no benefit to using any other card.

Among people who know what they're doing, people will still make mistakes

That brings us to travel hackers, who presumably are Gary's target audience with his harangue, and there are only three logical categories a person can fall in:

  • they can overvalue SkyMiles;
  • they can properly value them;
  • or they can undervalue them.

In other words, when a person decides where a dollar in annual fees, or a dollar in credit card spend, or a dollar in shopping portal purchases, is going to be most lucrative, they can earn more SkyMiles than would be platonically "correct," the correct number of SkyMiles, or fewer SkyMiles than they really ought to.

Gary's whole rant is focused on the mere existence of the first group, those who overvalue SkyMiles. And the first group no doubt exists! I've probably fallen into this group for the last year or so, finding it harder and harder to redeem SkyMiles for the flights I want, while stubbornly sticking with my Delta American Express card to meet the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver each year.

The problem for Gary's argument is that the second and third groups also exist, and there is no reason obvious to me that the first group is sufficiently larger than the other two groups to merit special attention.

Someone who puts $50,000 in qualifying spend on a Delta Platinum American Express earns 70,000 SkyMiles. To break even against a 2% cash back card they'd need to get an average of 1.43 cents per SkyMiles (weighted by redemption size). But remember, the floor on the value of SkyMiles is 1 cent each when redeemed against paid Delta fares, so the lefthand tail of the distribution of redemptions isn't at 0.0 cents each; it cuts off abruptly at 1.0 cents.

Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine that someone who is able to flexibly and strategically redeem SkyMiles for long-haul and premium cabin seats may not be earning enough SkyMiles. Just like in the case of the over-valuers, a travel hacker may be stuck in the rut of a single Delta Platinum card while they really should be earning many times more SkyMiles using a full suite of personal and business Platinum and Reserve cards, possibly even doubling up with a partner to gift themselves even more Reserve miles.

The existence of errors isn't informative unless you know the distribution of the errors

The reason I don't give advice is that I don't know your circumstances. I think Membership Rewards points, companion tickets, and annual free hotel nights are worth much less than face value, but whether they're worthwhile for you depends on your specific circumstances, about which I have no insight.

I believe many people make the mistake of collecting these instruments because they overvalue them, based on many interactions with my friends and readers.

But I also believe many people properly value them, and I believe many people undervalue them, and don't collect enough of them.

How is this miracle possible? How can I say in the same breath that some people overvalue companion tickets and other people undervalue them? Because they are worth different amounts to different people, and different people value them differently!

A currency is only overvalued if someone puts more value on that currency (sacrifices more value from alternatives) than it is worth to that person. And to know that, you need to know both what they are sacrificing (what their next best alternative is), which we can mostly approximate using widely-available 2%/2.5%/3% cashback credit cards, and how much the miles they earn are "really" worth, which depends on their particularized travel and booking patterns.

Conclusion

I'm the last person I expected to come to the defense of SkyMiles, and hopefully it's obvious I've more or less given up on the program for my own needs. But let's dispel with this fiction that Gary Leff has any insight into the value SkyMiles have in meeting your specific travel needs. If anybody tries to tell you the right program to meet your travel needs without knowing anything about you, it's a sure bet they're looking out for somebody besides you.

Confirmed? American Express is killing the golden Delta goose

I wrote back in February that I was concerned the unbonused manufactured spend I put on my Delta Platinum Business credit card wasn't counting towards my annual Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver, but that since it still appeared properly on my statement I hoped it would at least still earn me a "Miles Boost" of 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and 10,000 SkyMiles.

It didn't.

Avoid Simon Malls if you're chasing Amex high spend bonuses

I manufacture most of my unbonused spend at a local Simon Malls location, and obviously American Express has flagged Simon Malls as a merchant where people were buying PIN-enabled prepaid Visa debit cards.

While Simon Malls aren't a bonused merchant with any cards I know of, the activation costs are low enough that it's potentially worth manufacturing spend there with cards that offer a decent return on all spend.

For me, that included the Delta Platinum American Express card, not because 1.4 Delta SkyMiles were worth more than 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points, or 2 cents, but because the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver and bonus Medallion Qualification Miles made it close enough that I was willing to play along.

While my grocery store spend is still working to trigger the high spend bonuses on my Hilton Honors Ascend card, and so I presume would also trigger Miles Boost with the Delta card, that's a totally unreasonable tradeoff since the spend on the first is bonused and on the second unbonused.

An unreliable card is worse than a bad card

There are still options for manufacturing unbonused spend that may still work to trigger the high spend requirements on American Express cards, like GiftCardMall.com and GiftCards.com, but the problem is that once a company starts targeting obviously manufactured spend, there's no telling where they'll stop.

I was happy to take this chance for the edification of my readers, but you can't build a strategy around praying that a merchant will keep working long enough for you to meet a spend threshold. If you put $25,000 on a Delta Reserve card before the axe falls on your preferred merchant, there's no partial credit; you've wasted the entire $25,000 in spend that could have been put on a more lucrative card.

If reselling is the future, the future is getting closer

I'm not a reseller, except for the occasional stunt or proof of concept, but that's not because I don't think reselling is an important or useful strategy. It's just a strategy for rich folks with garages, and I'm poor and live in an apartment, so have neither the float nor the storage capacity to process the kinds of volume heavy hitters deal in.

Besides its favorable cost structure, the other obvious advantage of reselling in this context is that a reseller's purchases are of actual merchandise from real merchants. That makes unbonused, high-spend opportunities like the Delta American Express cards easy to meet with purchases that have no chance of being flagged as "cash equivalents" or the like.

Conclusion

I find American Express's situation peculiar.

First off, cardholders pay an annual fee, $195 in the case of the Delta Platinum card or $450 for the Delta Reserve. Then merchants pay an additional fee based on the transactions made with the card. Then if the customer doesn't pay their bill off in full each month, they also pay additional interest charges on their balance.

Meanwhile, American Express pays some amount for the SkyMiles they tell Delta to award to customers, plus perhaps an additional bounty when customers trigger their annual high spend thresholds. And, of course, American Express bears the risk of customer defaults on outstanding balances.

It seems to me there are three logical possibilities: either American Express is so bad at negotiating that they are paying more for the SkyMiles awarded on spend than they are earning on that same spend, or they think manufactured spend materially increases the likelihood of default, or both.

Then, of course, there's the illogical possibility: that American Express is making plenty of money off manufactured spend but is cutting off its nose to spite its face anyway.

How worried should Delta American Express cardholders be about RAT?

I've been watching with interest as datapoints have rolled in of American Express signup bonuses being denied to people who meet the minimum spend requirement with manufactured spend techniques, particularly gift card purchases at unbonused merchants like Simon Malls and GiftCardMall.com. I was disappointed to see another datapoint yesterday from Vinh at Miles per Day, who keeps close tabs on this stuff, reporting that a promotional high spend offer on the Starwood Preferred Guest Business American Express card wasn't triggered by Simon Mall gift card purchases.

Will gift card purchases count towards Miles Boost?

I'm about halfway to my first 2018 $25,000 spend threshold on my Delta Platinum American Express card, and have seen my miles post as normal on my first two statements this calendar year. Additionally, my statement accurately shows my year-to-date purchases.

That makes me modestly confident that I'll earn my 10,000 bonus SkyMiles and 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles when I reach $25,000 in spend — I'll post an update in April or May when I hit that threshold.

Will gift card purchases count towards Medallion Qualification Dollar waivers?

There is a potentially confusing coincidence for Delta Platinum American Express cardholders, since the card accelerates your path to Medallion status in two totally distinct ways:

  • at $25,000 and $50,000 in annual spend, you receive 10,000 bonus Medallion Qualification Miles;
  • at $25,000 in annual spend, you receive a Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver for the Silver, Gold, and Platinum Medallion tiers (a Diamond Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver requires $250,000 in purchases across all your co-branded Delta American Express cards).

For Delta Reserve cardholders the situation is less confusing, since the Miles Boost thresholds are at $30,000 and $60,000, while the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver is still triggered at $25,000.

While my purchases have so far been earning miles and my year-to-date purchases have been shown on my credit card statements, my Delta SkyMiles account has not been updating to show any progress towards the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver. That makes me modestly confident that my manufactured spend will not trigger a Medallion Qualification Waiver this year.

Which combination of benefits would justify keeping a co-branded Delta American Express card?

My Delta Platinum American Express card is easily the card I have the most trouble deciding whether or not to keep each year. So far, I've narrowly come down on the side of keeping it, due to:

  • the annual economy companion ticket (subject to fairly onerous fare bucket restrictions);
  • the Miles Boost benefit which brings the earning rate on $25,000 and $50,000 in spend up to 1.4 miles per dollars;
  • the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver.

I fly Delta often enough and exclusively enough that those benefits have so far convinced me to keep the card.

However, without a Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver, I would only occasionally qualify even for Silver Medallion status, which requires $3,000 in MQD's each calendar year. That would neuter the value of Miles Boost since my Medallion Qualification Miles would expire at the end of any year I didn't reach at least Silver Medallion.

And while I have so far been able to redeem the annual economy companion ticket for flights which retail for more than $195, $195 in airfare is worth just a small fraction of that to me, given my ability to manufacture cheap paid airfare with the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card and Chase Freedom Unlimited and Ink Plus cards. In fact, the new ability to redeem US Bank Flexpoints at full value for flights under $400 makes the companion ticket even less valuable since, as I've explained at length in the past, "companion tickets are a bad deal because they require you to purchase a revenue ticket directly from the airline."

If you can sell your companion ticket to someone planning to purchase an eligible Delta economy ticket for $195 or more, then that's an easy workaround. However, note that friends and family tend to be extremely unamused by such antics!

Conclusion

Delta's exclusive partnership with American Express puts folks who fly Delta by preference or necessity in a bind. If it's not worth carrying a high-annual-fee co-branded Delta credit card, it might still be worth carrying a Membership Rewards-earning credit card, especially one that earns bonus points in easily manufactured categories like supermarkets, since those points can be transferred to SkyMiles (with the payment of an additional excise tax).

However, if American Express is serious, as they seem increasingly to be, about cutting down on the rewards they grant for manufactured spend, then the Delta flyer is ultimately fighting a rearguard action. If manufacturing SkyMiles becomes too onerous, the obvious solution is to stop manufacturing SkyMiles.

I've resisted that step so far because of my fondness for Medallion status, but at the end of the day, if they're not willing to play along, $195 per year can buy a lot of status, and I have plenty of other options to pay for the flights I want or need.

Some recent redemptions, from good to mediocre

I usually try to write up a post for each award trip I take, both to share my thinking about my points and miles strategy and to keep myself honest about the value of the rewards currencies I earn. I've been doing quite a bit of redeeming lately, so I thought I'd cobble together those redemptions into an overview of the value I've been getting from my points lately.

Hilton Prague Old Town

After spending a few days in Karlovy Vary, we're going to return to Prague to use as our base for the last part of our trip this summer. Back in the days of last-night-free Club Carlton stays my go-to property in Prague was the Park Inn, but that property has no appeal whatsoever if you're not paying half price (although cash rates are just $166 for the nights of our stay).

That left a few options:

  • InterContinental Prague for 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night, or $260 per night if buying points at 0.65 cents each.
  • Hilton Prague for 40,000 points per night, or $200 per night if buying points for 0.5 cents each.
  • Hilton Prague Old Town for 36,000 points per night, or $180 per night.

There are also two Marriott properties in the city centre, but a quick glance showed both their points and cash rates were too high, as usual.

The Hilton options were especially appealing because our stay will be exactly 5 nights, making this possibly the first time I'll ever have taken advantage of Hilton's fifth-night-free benefit on award stays.

By the way, I'm using 0.5 cents per point as the price I purchase Hilton Honors points at, since a dollar spent at grocery stores earns either 6 Hilton Honors points or 2 US Bank Flexpoints, worth 3 cents towards travel. In other words, the opportunity cost, not the out of pocket cost, of the Hilton Honors points.

In this case the decision was easy to redeem 180,000 Hilton Honors points for 5 nights at the Hilton Prague Old Town. The actual paid rate for the room I booked was almost $2,000 after taxes, giving a shocking 1 cent per point redemption value, but even using the more realistic $1,200 total at the Hilton Prague yields a redemption value of 0.67 cents per point, or the equivalent of 4% cash back on grocery store spend.

One interesting thing this highlights is the difference between the absolute number of high-value redemptions you make and the volume of high-value spend you do. For example, if you only make a single high-value Hilton redemption each year, whether it's the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (3.8 cents per point in December), or the Grand Wailea Waldorf Astoria (1.9 cents per point over New Year's), you may be earning a substantial return on a high amount of spend — $63,000 in the case of those two properties, which cost 380,000 points for a 5-night stay.

Many travel hackers think of Hilton as a "backup" chain to their preferred program, whether that's World of Hyatt or Starwood Preferred Guest. What I'm trying to point out is that Hilton Honors points may be worth earning even if it's just for the occasional stunt redemption, and not as a core part of your travel hacking practice, precisely because those high-value redemption turn the Hilton Honors Ascend American Express card into a powerhouse for uncapped grocery store bonus spend.

Park Hyatt New York

Since my World of Hyatt Globalist status is ending this month, I decided to put together a final stunt redemption as a Globalist and took the train up to New York City for Presidents Day weekend.

The Park Hyatt New York costs 30,000 World of Hyatt points per night, and the cash rate for our stay was about $860, giving a respectable 2.9 cents per transferred Ultimate Rewards point. We were upgraded to a one-bedroom suite and abused the hell out of the breakfast benefit, so in terms of maximizing the value of Globalist status, mission accomplished.

However, I can't imagine any reason to go back to this hotel. Besides the unavoidable Hyatt service gaffes, the room's elaborate electronic bells-and-whistles were a source of constant frustration, and the location doesn't have any particular advantage over the 25,000-point Andaz 5th Avenue a mile away.

Obviously a $300 hotel night in New York City isn't unreasonable, especially with $100+ of breakfast included every morning as a Globalist, but there's no way to argue the Park Hyatt New York is a value play.

Hyatt Regency Lexington

For an April trip to Lexington, Kentucky, I booked four nights at the Hyatt Regency Lexington, which is my preferred place to stay in Lexington during Keeneland. They didn't have points-only award availability, but I was able to book a Points + Cash stay for 16,000 World of Hyatt points and $255. A cash stay would cost $900, for a respectable 4 cents per transferred Ultimate Rewards point.

The Hilton across the street wants 160,000 points for my stay, which would give a value of just 0.56 cents per Honors point, so the Hyatt was clearly the way to go.

Note that if points-only award space was available for 8,000 points per night, I would have made a Guest of Honor reservation instead, even though the per-point redemption value would fall to just 2.8 cents each.

Mediocre Delta redemptions

Finally, I've made a few sad-sack Delta redemptions lately:

  • I redeemed 80,000 SkyMiles and $55 for my partner's roundtrip flight to Prague. As I noted in my original post about the redemption, the price jumped from $953 to $1409 while I was watching it, which changed it overnight from a terrible 1.12 cent per mile redemption to a mediocre 1.7 cent per mile redemption.
  • For my flight to Lexington I redeem 23,000 SkyMiles for flights that would have cost $321 in cash, for a 1.4 cent per mile redemption. It would have been narrowly superior to redeem US Bank Flexpoints for the flight at 1.5 cents each, but I chose not to in order to build a bigger, more versatile Flexpoints balance. Since Flexpoints can only be redeemed for the full price of an itinerary, the risk of having too few Flexpoints is the total inability to redeem them, while the risk of having too many is having some leftover for a future redemption. Delta SkyMiles, on the other hand, are not valuable enough to hoard, so redeeming them is always my first choice, within reason.

The logic and illogic of Delta award pricing

I mentioned earlier in the week that I'm planning a summer trip to the Czech Republic, and discussed some different strategies I'm considering for booking our first few nights in Karlovy Vary (check out the comments to that post for some great reader suggestions for saving money at independent hotels).

Today I finally pulled the trigger on our airline tickets, about one day later than would have been ideal, but you book tickets at the prices you have, not the prices you might want or wish to have at an earlier time.

Because I'd been watching the ticket prices so closely, I noticed an odd price move.

Delta award tickets are not perfectly aligned with prices

While Delta has adopted revenue-based earning on paid tickets, they've only fitfully moved towards revenue-based redemptions. More expensive award tickets do tend to cost more miles than cheaper tickets, but the relationship isn't linear, which means Delta SkyMiles still offer a range of redemption values, rather than a fixed redemption rate.

Today I saw that the cash price of our ideal itinerary had moved from $953 to $1,409, while the award price remained at 80,000 SkyMiles (plus $55 in taxes and fees). Since I was planning to book my partner's award ticket with miles anyway, I did so immediately. Theoretically, this begs the question of whether I got $1,354 in value or $898 in value, but that part doesn't worry me too much, since the revenue price had already increased by the time I decided to book it, turning the decision to book with miles from a head-scratcher into a no-brainer.

What interested me was how I was going to book my own revenue ticket now that the price had shot up.

It still pays to search one leg at a time

I already knew our outbound itinerary was the ideal one, with a short connection at New York's JFK airport and a nonstop flight to Prague, and that itinerary is still available for 30,000 SkyMiles. But perusing Google Flights, I realized that there were still cheap itineraries including our transatlantic return leg.

And that's when it hit me that the final, domestic leg was the one messing up the pricing. The itinerary including the domestic leg priced out at $1,408:

While the same itinerary without the final domestic leg cost just $1,013:

Given those conditions, I booked my international itinerary to end at JFK, and I'll figure out my own way home from there. Revenue flights are just $216 (compared to the full itinerary price difference of $456), and I can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards or US Bank Flexpoints for that leg.

Or I'll just catch a Chinatown bus if I have to!

Conclusion

I went into this booking with a pretty restrictive set of constraints, so I didn't initially do as much work as I should have figuring out which flights were available at high and low revenue and award prices. Once I realized my mistake, I was able to immediately save hundreds of dollars by stopping short of my final destination and figuring out my own way home from there.

The lesson is clear: search multiple combinations of routes and itineraries in order to identify which legs are the most expensive, and see if you can find alternate methods of transportation to avoid them.

What a 10-minute schedule change taught me about Delta — and about myself

It's no secret that the core of my travel hacking practice is manufactured spend. I focus on low-risk, high-reward opportunities to earn points and cash with credit card purchases and liquidate those purchases back to cash as quickly as possible. But while different travel hackers focus on different areas, I don't intentionally ignore the other elements of the game, and I don't think anyone else should either:

  • keeping an eye out for mistake fares may let you save money on trips you're already planning to take, or go on short-notice jaunts in premium cabins if your schedule is flexible enough.
  • taking advantage of status matches between loyalty programs, especially before trips where status might be particularly valuable.
  • using shopping portals strategically to earn seasonal shopping bonuses or secure outsized rewards like the Southwest Companion Pass.

One of the oldest travel hacking tricks I know about is using schedule changes to rebook from less convenient to more convenient flights while avoiding change fees and fare differences.

How a 10-minute schedule change saved me $2,000

One of the beauties of living in a city with a perimeter-limited airport is that we have non-stop flights virtually everywhere within the perimeter. That means I can fly from my most convenient airport basically anywhere within the Midwest, Northeast, or Southeast without a connection. To some destinations, however, those flights are just once a day, which can create schedule conflicts with people whose schedules have less flexibility than mine.

My trip this weekend back to the Midwest proved to be just such an occasion. Back in November, I'd booked our flights on the early-afternoon nonstop to and from the Midwest in each direction.

But it wasn't to be; my partner had an urgent work meeting that afternoon that couldn't be changed. I quickly calculated that I had three options:

  • a same-day confirmed change;
  • a same-day standby change;
  • bullshitting.

I understand that there are people who treat same-day confirmed and same-day standby as core elements of the travel hacker's inventory — and good for them! As a Gold Medallion, in principle I should have waived same-day confirmed and same-day standby fees, which would have made either option, in principle, possible.

But — and this is just between us — I have no idea how that works and I wasn't about to experiment on a trip that I actually wanted to go on.

That left bullshitting as my first line of offense.

My front-line customer service representative had some well-justified skepticism

Once I learned about the problem, I checked my reservation details and immediately noticed that our original outbound flight was scheduled for 3:10 pm, while a few weeks later it had been rescheduled for 3:00 pm. So I picked up the phone and called Delta, asking them to reaccommodate us on a connecting flight later in the day.

I explained that the earlier flight didn't work with our schedule. After all, if we wanted a 3 pm flight, we would have booked one, right? My adorable representative repeatedly asked me, "you can't make it to the airport 10 minutes earlier?"

After I repeatedly explained that no, I could not make it to the airport 10 minutes earlier, she told me that there would be a $250 change fee per ticket, plus any fare difference (these were very cheap tickets, so the amounts involved would be a few thousand dollars more than I actually paid).

I calmly told her that the new departure time didn't work for us and that we needed to be rebooked on a later flight, and she said what was perhaps the funniest thing in our entire conversation: "we have a 90-minute change policy." I can only assume she meant that Delta was free to move the departure time of a flight 90 minutes in either direction without reaccommodating customers, which is untrue, but in a way so absurd it's hard to believe even she believed what she was saying.

So I asked for her supervisor.

My customer service supervisor had rebooked me before she even picked up the phone

After about a minute on hold, a Delta supervisor picked up the phone, told me that she understood I wanted to be rebooked on the later connecting flight, and asked me to hold while she took care of it for me.

It was absurdly painless.

Conclusion

There are no heroes in this story.

  • Why do passengers book flights they're ultimately unable to catch?
  • Why do airlines change their schedules so often?
  • Why do airlines charge change fees for passengers whose schedules change?
  • Why must everything be a battle?
  • Why must we treat merely not being fleeced as a triumph in its own right?

I don't have answers to those questions. But I do have an answer to one question: what should you do if a front-line representative refuses to rebook you after a minor schedule change? Ask to speak to their supervisor, and demand to be rebooked.

If your new flight leaves earlier, explain that you can't make the earlier departure time. If your flight arrives later, explain that you'll miss your meeting, wedding, or tryst. No airline has ever been forced to come up with an explanation for why their schedule suddenly changed, so feel free to apply some imagination and explain why you can't possibly accommodate their change in schedule.

How to make Delta's (bad) squeaky wheel policy work for you

If you spend much time around here, you know that I like flying on Delta. There are some catches, of course: if you prefer flying on Delta you'll probably want to get an American Express Delta Platinum or Reserve card and meet the high spend threshold in order to secure a Medallion Qualifying Dollar waiver (plus bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles). It's become harder to secure domestic First Class upgrades, but I've had great luck being upgraded to Comfort+ on leisure trips, even as a Silver Medallion (though I'll be a Gold Medallion next year).

But there's one area where Delta drives me positively nuts: their policy on meal vouchers for delayed and misconnected passengers.

Delta agents absolutely can issue meal vouchers

One of the great things about flying back to my hometown in Montana is that the outbound flights are inevitably overbooked. On my last two trips home I've taken voluntary denied boarding compensation of $1,300 and $800, so basically each trip I take home pays for another couple trips on Delta. Agents in my hometown also love printing out meal vouchers, so in addition to getting to relax at the downtown Hilton, I also get 3 $15 coupons to eat at the steakhouse there. Good deal, right?

Somebody told Delta's agents they can't issue meal vouchers

On my last flight back from Montana, my plane went mechanical and they had to fly a replacement jet in from Minneapolis, causing me to miss my connection back to the East Coast. When we finally arrived late at night in Minneapolis, Delta had already set us up with hotel reservations and boarding passes for flights the next day. Naturally, I asked the agent, "what about meal vouchers?" and he replied with a straight face, "no, we don't do that anymore."

Keep in mind that 36 hours earlier I'd received $45 in meal vouchers printed on Delta ticket stock out of a Delta agent's computer.

So, being me, I started bitching about it on Twitter, and after I explained the situation over DM, Delta's Twitter agent replied:

"I will have to get more information on that because you were just offered a voucher for meals on yesterday. I will reach out to airport Leadership to get some additional information on that. It may be only certain stations that offer meals. Corporate will definitely reimburse under the circumstances."

Reimbursement procedure

This wasn't exactly tricky but I'd never done it before so I want to spell it out for my readers. To get reimbursed for my meals, I did the following:

  1. Visit Delta's "comment/complaint" page here.
  2. Select "voice a complaint," then "after trip."
  3. Fill out the personal information and flight information.
  4. Explain the situation, ask for reimbursement, and attach any supporting documentation.

For my supporting documentation I attached both the receipt for my meal at the hotel bar that night and screenshots of my entire exchange with Delta's Twitter team, stating the bill would be reimbursed. I don't know if the Twitter screenshots were strictly necessary, but I wasn't going to take any chances. I did not include the itemized receipt, just the credit card receipt showing the total amount charged (useful if you remember the details of my Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance post).

Timeline

I filed my complaint on September 29. On October 14, I received an e-mail stating they had issued me a check for the entire restaurant bill I submitted, and the check I am now holding in my hands was dated October 16 (I was out of the country last week and only just checked my mail).

This is bad

Now I know how to do this, and since you're a faithful reader, now you know how to do it too. But of the 100+ passengers on my misconnected Delta flight, all of whom were owed meal reimbursement, how many of them got it? I'd be stunned if you told me a single other person on that flight went through this procedure and received the reimbursement they were entitled to.

Were they lazy? Were they stupid? No, they were just told by an authority figure that they weren't entitled to anything, and they accepted it, because what else were they going to do?

About Delta Private Jets

Last week I wrote about how I would think about earning Diamond Medallion status with Delta after the changes going into effect for Medallion Qualifying Dollars in January, 2018. I then quipped on Twitter that "If you're just a rich guy who wants Diamond Medallion status just get a Delta Private Jets Card."

I was referring to the ability to deposit $100,000 on a Delta Private Jets card and receive Diamond Medallion status. You would then have 2 years to spend the $100,000, which you can redeem either for private jet flights or for commercial flights marketed by Delta. If you buy full fare commercial tickets you also get a 20% discount (they would still be much, much more expensive than the "discounted" tickets ordinary people buy; I assume this benefit is targeted at companies that insist on booking refundable tickets).

This is, obviously, not worth doing for an ordinary travel hacker. But you can imagine a well-connected rich guy, or even a very frequent reimbursed business traveler who wouldn't earn enough Medallion Qualifying Miles or Segments for Diamond Medallion status, getting quite a lot of potential value from this benefit.

That's because the status you get from Delta Private Jets is supposed to give you "immediate" access to Diamond Choice Benefits, for instance, that could be worth a thousand dollars or so, between Sky Club membership, global upgrades, or just selling Gold Medallion status. If you get Diamond Medallion status for the year you join and the next two years, you could potentially receive three sets of Choice Benefits to offset the cost of prepaying for your Delta travel.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen any reports of how this benefit works in practice. Folks with that kind of money don't spend a lot of time posting on public message boards, I guess.

Two other ways to get Delta Private Jets access (but not Diamond Medallion)

When I started writing this post I hoped to reveal a secret backdoor into Diamond Medallion status. You see, there are two ways to get a Delta Private Jets card without spending $100,000:

  • American Express Platinum cardmembers can deposit as little as $50,000 on a card, and receive a 3% bonus on the card's value (if you were planning to deposit $100,000 you would want to open a Platinum card just for this benefit; paying a $550 annual fee for a $3,000 boost in value);
  • all SkyMiles members can redeem 2,500,000 SkyMiles for a $25,000 Delta Private Jets card.

What the internet couldn't tell me is whether people pursuing either of those options would still receive Diamond Medallion status! So, I picked up the phone and committed journalism: I called Delta Private Jets and asked.

What I found is kind of interesting in its own right. While these three methods of buying a Delta Private Jets card all seem different to a travel hacker, with different thresholds and benefits, Delta Private Jets doesn't actually seem to differentiate between the methods internally. You can redeem SkyMiles in any amount in excess of 2.5 million, and you can use a Platinum card to load any amount in excess of $50,000 to receive a 3% bonus, or both.

But regardless of how you pay for the amount you load, the benefits you receive depend only on the amount you load. There are a few minor differences concerning hourly rates and such, but the two important ones are:

  • Loads of less than $100,000 expire in one year, rather than two years;
  • and loads of less than $100,000 don't grant Diamond Medallion status.

In other words, Diamond Medallion status is a benefit of the amount you load, not a benefit of Delta Private Jets membership (this has been misreported absolutely everywhere I have looked for it).

Conclusion

One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on airfare, and it's a hell of a lot of money to loan to Delta interest free for two years in the hopes you'll spend it within 24 months. On the other hand, for somebody rich enough to not mind the float, but not rich enough to actually fly private and shop around for the best private jet pricing, and who knows they'll spend $100,000 on Delta-marketed flights for themselves and their employees, friends or relations in the next 24 months, this is the quickest and easiest path to Diamond Medallion status I know of.

Thinking about the 2018 changes to Delta co-branded credit card MQD waivers

I've been reading with interest about the recently-announced change to how Delta will handle Medallion Qualifying Dollar waivers starting with the 2019 qualification year (January 1, 2018). Frequent Miler has an interesting post from the perspective of someone who is already maximizing a set of 4 American Express Platinum and Reserve co-branded credit cards.

I've personally been bouncing back and forth between Silver and Gold Medallion status for the past few years, after two glorious years as a Platinum Medallion, so I don't expect this change to affect me personally unless I suddenly have to start flying a lot more. But I know some readers still gun for top-tier status with Delta, so I thought it'd be worth sharing a few thoughts.

Rollover MQM are very valuable

Delta is the only airline to allow you to roll elite qualifying miles over from one year to the next, but they allow this only if you achieve at least Silver Medallion status each year. In other words, if you only earn 20,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles in 2017, you'll start 2018 with zero MQM. If you earn 40,000 MQM in 2017 (and meet the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements or have them waived through credit card spend) you'll start 2018 with 15,000 rollover MQM.

When the $25,000 MQD waiver applied to every level of Medallion status, the maximum number of MQM a Platinum Medallion who qualified with a MQD waiver could roll over was 49,999. Any more MQM than that, and they would qualify for Diamond Medallion status, resetting their rollover clock to zero and having to start their requalification from scratch the following year.

With the Diamond Medallion MQD waiver threshold raised to $250,000, Platinum Medallions will be able to rollover an unlimited number of MQM, giving them a big head start in the next year's requalification.

Why does this matter? Because if you experience a variable amount of travel from year to year, you might prefer to smooth it out by remaining Platinum every year (and enjoying free award changes and cancellations), rather than bounce up and down between Gold and Diamond Medallion statuses.

How much do MQM cost?

Frequent Miler did a good job explaining the value he perceives from earning MQM and achieving Medallion status, but I'm naturally much more interested in the cost of doing so. Assuming you have or are eligible for both personal and business Platinum and Reserve Delta American Express cards, it's easy to calculate the cost of chasing Medallion status:

  • Your first 60,000 MQM cost $900 in annual fees ($450 for each Delta Reserve card) and $2,400 in foregone cash back (the value of charging $120,000 to a 2% cash back card instead), for a total cost of 5.5 cents per MQM.
  • Your next 40,000 MQM cost $390 in annual fees ($195 for each Delta Platinum card) and $2,000 in foregone cash back, for a total cost of 5.98 cents per MQM.

This pattern of spend would yield 100,000 MQM and 320,000 redeemable SkyMiles, and leave you 25,000 MQM (and $30,000 in spend) short of Diamond status, and cost a total of $5,690, for an average MQM cost of 5.69 cents and cost per SkyMile of 1.78 cents.

Timing matters

At this point you have two options: you can earn 25,000 MQM through actual flight activity (and spend another $30,000 on your co-branded credit cards) in order to earn Diamond status, or you can roll over 25,000 MQM into the following calendar year.

In my view, which decision is best depends on how long it takes you to meet the high spend thresholds on your credit cards. That's because when you earn Medallion status it's valid through the rest of the year it's earned in and the entire following year.

Consider two cases:

  • You spend all of 2018 meeting your high spend thresholds and flying on paid Delta tickets (foregoing the opportunity to redeem the haul of SkyMiles you're also accumulating) and qualify as a Diamond Medallion on December 31, 2018. Your status is valid through January, 2020.
  • You spend 2018 meeting your high spend thresholds and aggressively redeeming your SkyMiles. You end the year with 100,000 MQM and Platinum Medallion status. Then in January, 2019, you spend $250,000 across your co-branded credit cards. Together with your 25,000 rollover MQM, you now have 125,000 MQM and a Diamond Medallion MQD waiver. Your Diamond Medallion status is valid through January, 2021.

In other words, if you're confident you can meet your high spend thresholds early in the year, either through manufactured spend or legitimate expenses, you only need to actually requalify as a Diamond Medallion (and meet the $250,000 MQD waiver threshold) every 2 years. And during any gap between the expiry of your Diamond status and your requalification you'll still get to enjoy your Platinum Medallion benefits.

Of course you'll only receive your Diamond Choice Benefits every other year, as well.

Conclusion

As I mentioned, it's been a few years since I had Platinum Medallion status, but I was very satisfied with it and think for the casual travel hacker it is probably adequate in terms of domestic upgrade chances, Sky Club access when traveling internationally, and free award changes and redeposits. You can also achieve it with just 3 co-branded credit cards, saving either $195 or $450 depending on whether you decide to cut a Platinum or Reserve credit card (2 Platinums and 1 Reserve will earn you just 70,000 MQM after $160,000 in spend, so you'd also need to earn at least 5,000 MQM from flying each year).

However, I can easily see how international business travelers who want to redeem global upgrade certificates or those forced to travel in domestic economy who want to maximize their chances of an upgrade might decide to stretch for Diamond Medallion. Depending on how much value you get out of Sky Club access and Delta companion tickets, the co-branded credit cards may be a cost-effective — though far from cheap — way of achieving it.