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.

My favorite credit card auxiliary benefits, ranked

I've been thinking lately about the Bank of America Alaska Airlines credit card, since it has a somewhat higher signup bonus than usual, at 30,000 Mileage Plan miles, a $100 statement credit, and a taxes-and-fees-only companion ticket for the first year, instead of the usual $99-plus-taxes-and-fees offer.

Since Alaska companion tickets can be used on any economy fare, and Mileage Plan has last-seat award availability, this is basically a signup bonus of between 1.5 and 2 roundtrips on Alaska or Virgin America, depending on whether you can find low-level award space or have to redeem all 30,000 Mileage Plan miles for a one-way (or possibly a few more if you're flying to Hawaii or Mexico).

Since Bank of America lets you apply for and receive the same card and signup bonus multiple times, it used to be popular to apply for a new Alaska Airlines card every 91 days and then request product changes to the Better Balance Rewards card, which can be automated to spin off $30 every quarter in cash back. I believe that product change is no longer available as the Better Balance Rewards card isn't being offered to new customers, but a product change from a card with a good signup bonus is still likely the best way to get a card like the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card, which only has a standard signup bonus of 20,000 points.

Since ranking stuff is fun, here are a few of my other favorite credit card auxiliary benefits, ranked.

5. Centurion Lounge access

This is technically not one of my favorite auxiliary benefits since I don't have an American Express Platinum or Business Platinum card, but it's one of my favorite auxiliary benefits for other people to have so they can guest me into the lounges.

I've invited subscribers to join me at meetups in the Centurion lounges in Las Vegas, New York La Guardia, and Dallas/Fort Worth, and as someone who would never pay for lounge access I am happy to say they really are terrific lounges. Great food, cocktails, views, seating, and wi-fi. If I lived in or regularly traveled through cities with Centurion Lounges I could certainly see applying for a Business Platinum card. I don't, so I won't, but this benefit still sneaks into the top 5.

4. America Express Delta Platinum and Reserve companion tickets

I don't think the Delta companion tickets, which can both be redeemed for tickets in certain cheap domestic economy fare buckets, and in the case of the Reserve companion ticket in first class, are as valuable as people claim. They essentially function as a not-quite-50% discount on economy tickets, if you are willing to be flexible with your routing and plan far enough in advance, because you still have to pay taxes and fees on the second ticket.

The best value of the companion tickets, of course, is to simply sell them to someone who isn't a travel hacker. That's an easy way to bring down the out-of-pocket cost of your annual fee, if you're primarily interested in the cards in order to earn bonus SkyMiles and waive the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements for status.

Finally, Frequent Miler has written about the opportunity to combine Delta companion tickets and the American Express Business Platinum card's 35% Membership Rewards point rebate. Apparently Membership Rewards points can be redeemed against purchases made with the Business Platinum card outside the American Express Travel booking portal. It does require a phone call and is apparently up to the discretion of the phone agent, and I've never tried it, so don't take my word for it. To give a simple example, two $500 tickets with $11.20 in taxes and fees would cost a total of $511.20 if booked with a Delta companion ticket. Since you can pay for Delta companion tickets with any American Express card, you'd then put the charge on your Business Platinum card. Calling into Membership Rewards, you'd redeem 51,120 Membership Rewards points, and eventually receive a rebate of 35% of those points, or 17,892. That would give you a total out-of-pocket cost of 33,228 Membership Rewards points for $1,000 in flights, or 3 cents per Membership Rewards point.

Be careful to note the reason this works: you can't pay for Delta companion tickets with any card that is not an American Express card. If you could, you'd be better off paying with a travel rewards card that you manufacture cheap spend on, or a card that offers free trip delay insurance. But since you have to choose an American Express card, the Business Platinum is the card that lets you leverage the value of your Membership Rewards points against the already-discounted cost of the companion ticket.

3. Trip Delay insurance

Speaking of trip delay insurance, after my experience getting stranded by United in Denver, I've come around to the idea. I'd never pay for it separately, and I probably wouldn't keep a card just because it offers trip delay insurance, but if you already carry a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival+, then you should be booking as many of your flights with it as possible.

That won't always be possible, for example if you're booking tickets using US Bank Flexpoints or Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but for tickets you book with cash, or award tickets that give you a choice of cards to pay with — use the right card! It only takes one claim every few years to pay for many years of $89 or $95 annual fees.

2. Hilton Honors Gold (Diamond) status

Hilton Gold status is notoriously easy to earn, and Hilton Diamond status is notoriously worth little above and beyond the benefits of Gold. Nonetheless, no matter how easy it is to earn, you still want to earn it somehow if Hilton is going to be one of your primary loyalty programs. Personally I carry the American Express Hilton Honors Surpass card, which gives automatic Gold status and Diamond status when you spend $40,000 on the card, although the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve card has the same status earning structure (but earns just 5 Honors points per dollar spent at grocery stores).

1. Hyatt annual free night certificate

The annual free night certificate earned by the Chase Hyatt credit card is the best credit card free night certificate for a few reasons:

  • Unlike the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve free night certificate, it can be used on any day, not just on weekends, and doesn't have a $10,000 spending requirement, allowing that spend to be put on more lucrative credit cards.
  • Unlike the Chase IHG Rewards Club free night certificate, the Hyatt certificate can be combined with valuable World of Hyatt points instead of worthless IHG Rewards Club points. To illustrate this point, a 3-night stay at a top-tier IHG Rewards Club property like the InterContinental Sydney would require the transfer of 120,000 Ultimate Rewards points to IHG Rewards Club, plus the use of an annual free night certificate. A 3-night stay at a top-tier Hyatt property requires just 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points — no certificate required! The corollary of that is the ability to save valuable World of Hyatt points at lower-tier properties by swapping in the free Category 1-4 certificate. The credit card's $75 annual fee buys you a free night certificate worth between $50 and $150 in Ultimate Rewards points.
  • Unlike the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier free night certificate, the Hyatt free night certificate can be used at properties you actually want to stay at. The Marriott Rewards Premier certificate can be used at properties up to Category 5, which would cost 25,000 Marriott Rewards points, if you could find one to stay at. But while Marriott has so totally gutted their categories that there's no reason to count on finding a Category 5 property that's worth an $85 annual fee, there are still plentiful Category 4 Hyatt properties where paying a $75 annual fee will get you a reasonable discount.

Conclusion

Naturally, your ranking should differ based on your own travel needs:

  • if you travel often enough that you are desperate for lounge access, the premium airline credit cards will offer it;
  • likewise Hawaiian travelers may get value from the Barclaycard Hawaiian Airlines credit card's companion ticket;
  • and if you stay at a lot of Sheratons the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Business card gives Sheraton Club Lounge access (I've never stayed at a Sheraton or visited a Sheraton Club Lounge but I'm sure they're nice).

But for my own travel needs, these are the five benefits I value the most.

When deals don't stack

One of the most popular approaches to travel hacking is finding deals that "stack:" when you can apply multiple techniques to a single transaction, you can bring your out of pocket expenses even lower than you would applying any one of them individually.

Some deals stack

Since stacking deals can amplify total savings, deals that stack tend to get a lot of attention. For a simple example, you might click through a cash back portal to Hotels.com, apply a Hotels.com coupon, and pay for your stay with an Arrival Plus card. The cash back portal and coupon lower the amount you're charged, and then your final out-of-pocket cost is reduced further by redeeming against the transaction Arrival Plus miles you've manufactured as cheaply as possible.

Stacked deals can get much, much more complicated that that: Frequent Miler has painstakingly shown how portal cashback, coupons, credit cards, and even the tax code can be stacked to earn a Southwest Companion Pass with as little out-of-pocket expense as possible.

Most deals don't stack

What's usually glossed over by credit card salesmen is that most deals don't stack, which is important to both understand and take into account when developing a travel hacking strategy.

To take an example from last Thursday's post, the 4th-night-free benefit of the Citi Prestige card gives a roughly 25% discount off paid stays of exactly 4 nights. Ideally, you'd like to stack that with something like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, to redeem cheap points against your final bill. But because the stay has to be paid for with the Citi Prestige, your discount is limited to 25% — less than you'd save simply paying for a 4-night stay with one of those credit cards.

Another example is the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards, which offer an annual companion ticket in economy (Platinum) or first class (Reserve). Such tickets offer a discount of almost 50% off 2 domestic tickets (though only the primary ticket earns redeemable and Medallion Qualifying miles). But manufacturing spend at grocery stores with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card offers a discount of, for example, between 53.2% and 68.9% on paid airfare! Buy two tickets with Flexpoints and not only are you unconstrained by fare class, but both tickets will earn miles and be upgrade-eligible, as well.

That doesn't mean the Delta American Express cards are bad cards (I personally have a Delta Platinum small business card). It does mean you need to think critically about the value of the companion ticket, perhaps using it to book travel for friends or relatives who will reimburse you (maybe) rather than using it for your own travel.

Conclusion

The question, "can I stack this deal?" should be one of the first ones you ask whenever you see a pitch for a new credit card or discount on purchased points, but also as you proceed through your everyday routine. If the answer is yes, you can amplify your savings by applying as many angles as possible to each transaction.

If the answer is no, that doesn't render a deal instantly worthless. But it is an invitation to examine the deal more closely, to ask whether and how you'll incorporate it into your overall travel hacking strategy. It may turn out to be superior to your other techniques, and it's those other strategies that should yield to the new, cheaper method of paying for your travel.

But if it offers a smaller discount (like the Prestige 4th-night-free), less-flexible booking options (like the Delta companion tickets), or interferes with your other goals, like elite status requalification, then you should take seriously the possibility that you will get less value, or have greater out-of-pocket expense, then you would pursuing a different strategy that incorporates more, better, and stackable deals.

Delta Devaluation Blog Fight: Willful Mendacity edition

Instead of enjoying my weekend,  here I am shaking my head at some of the rhetoric coming out of Boarding Area since Friday's bonus Delta devaluation (introducing "interim" redemption rates for travel between February 1, 2014 and May 31, 2014).

First a quick roundup: 

  • One Mile At A Time asserts: "I think that anyone that cared about the value of their miles likely left Delta a long time ago."
  • View from the Wing piles on: "the miles are worth less than in other programs and...the people running the program are, in my view, completely untrustworthy."
  • Delta Points shoots back:  "they are both flat out wrong in this case."
  • View from the Wing makes fun of Rene:  "of the 20 reasons he offers, only a small few are directly related to the frequent flyer program."

The problem with all the participants in this little spat is that they're willfully confusing three different issues:

  1. Is Delta Airlines a good airline?
  2. What is the value of 1 SkyMile?
  3. What is the value of the Delta SkyMiles frequent flyer program?

Trying to answer all three questions along one axis is just going to confuse your readers (and in this case, the bloggers themselves seem pretty confused). 

Is Delta a Good Airline?

Delta's isn't just a good airline, it's the best domestic US carrier. Most of Delta Points' arguments fall into this category:

 

1) They were almost ALL on time and worked
2) Almost all of the reps I interacted with were TOPS
3) The wifi worked on almost all the jets
4) The seats were comfortable
5) The Skyclubs are fine and reps are good there
6) When issues came up I was taken care of well
7) The phone app, while slow, works
8) The seats are being upgraded to nice full-flat seats
9) The food is good
10) The drinks are good (if they get rid of Woodford I will cry)
12) The partners are good
13) The routes and frequency are good
16) Pilots are well trained and professional
17) HUB airports flow well
19) @DeltaAssist works and works FAST
20) Compensation for issues that do come up.

 

      View from the Wing begrudgingly acknowledges these points: "Delta is a good airline, and it has an awful frequent flyer program...in saying they’re good I am grading on a curve (comparing them to US carriers)...Non-stop flights and frequency are worth something and Delta runs a pretty good operation."

      So, they're better than all their domestic competitors (who else should we compare them to? Singapore?), have non-stop flights, good frequency, and they run a good operation? In other words, Delta's a great airline for US travelers who travel primarily...in the US?

      What is the Value of 1 SkyMile? 

      1 SkyMile has a floor value of 1 cent when redeemed for "Pay with Miles," a benefit of their co-branded American Express cards. Economy Pay with Miles redemptions don't earn MQM or redeemable SkyMiles, but first and business class redemptions do (with corresponding class of service bonuses).

      I've never made a Pay with Miles redemption and I hope I never do, but it's worth trying to establish what the lowest possible value of a SkyMile is. 

      Now, the value you get from SkyMiles is going to depend on your redemption pattern. After June 1 (post-devaluation) economy class redemptions to Europe from the Continental United States still cost just 60,000 SkyMiles. Assuming that's a $900-$1,300 ticket (with a free one-way!), you're getting 1.5-2.17 cents per SkyMile. If you book a 125,000 SkyMile award in BusinessElite, you'll get 0.72-1.04 cents in value per SkyMile (assuming you value BusinessElite the same as economy – a silly assumption but we're being conservative).

      However, we've already established that you'll get at least 1 cent in value from a Pay with Miles redemption, so let's say a conservative range in value is 1 cent to 2.17 cents per Skymile, and tentatively put the value of 1 SkyMile at 1.585 cents.

       

      What is the Value of the SkyMiles Program?

      There are three ways to get value from the SkyMiles program as a traveller: elite benefits, earning for flight activity, and earning for co-branded credit card activity.

      The value you put on elite benefits is going to depend on your own personality: I love being upgraded to first class, I love free checked bags (including insanely oversized fencing bags), and I love having competent agents I can get on the phone any time who are willing to go the extra mile to help me. That's tough to monetize, so let's set it aside for now.

      Earning for flight activity is easy: since we've figured out the value of 1 SkyMile, we just need to calculate what rebate value SkyMiles provide on the cost of paid travel. I'll use my own earning activity as an example:

      So far this year I've spent $1,514 on the fare portion of my Delta flights, and earned 25,182 Medallion Qualification Miles. Now, some taxes and fees are excluded from MQD calculations, so let's add a 25% buffer on that cost number, bringing it to $1,893 (being conservative). That means I've paid about 7.5 cents per MQM this year. As a Platinum Medallion, however, I've earned 100% bonus redeemable SkyMiles on every flight flown this year, making my total earned SkyMile haul 50,364. In other words, I paid about 3.76 cents per SkyMile, giving me a rebate value of about 42%: thanks to SkyMiles I earn 42% of the paid value of my tickets back in future travel.

      Finally, you can get value from the SkyMiles program by using their Platinum or Reserve co-branded credit cards. How much value? Well, at the Platinum card's $25,000 and $50,000 bonus thresholds, your overall earning is 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar, or 2.22 cents per dollar (about the same as the BarclayCard Arrival World MasterCard). The Reserve card earns slightly more at its $30,000 and $60,000 bonus thresholds, 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar or 2.38 cents per dollar.

      But as the old infomercials used to say, that's not all, because if you're hitting those spend thresholds, you should be doing so in order to secure Platinum or Diamond Medallion status, where you'll have the option of choosing 20,000 or 25,000 bonus SkyMiles as your Choice Benefit, giving you an additional $317 and $396 in value, without setting foot on a plane or spending an additional dollar.

       "Should" you fly Delta?

      Anyone who tells you what airline "smart" or "stupid" people fly without breaking down the analysis along all three of these axes is either deliberately lying to you or doesn't know what they're talking about. The redemption value, earning rate, and value you put on elite benefits depends entirely on your own travel and earning behavior. There is no one size fits all answer to those questions.

      Personally, next year is going to be my transition year away from Platinum Medallion on Delta. There's no way I'll fly enough paid tickets to make it worth the mileage runs I'd need to secure Platinum status, which is when you are able to make unlimited free award changes and redeposits (and secure that lucrative Choice Benefit). At the end of next year I'll status match to Alaska MVP Gold, and start crediting my Delta and Alaska flights to my Mileage Plan account instead. I'll be sad to lose my first class upgrades, but the Alaska miles are so much more valuable that without high-level elite status on Delta, it's worth it for me to make the switch.

       

       

      Delta award availability and @DeltaAssist

      There's no doubt about it: Delta has a terrible reputation for award availability.

      SkyMiles are incredibly easy to accrue, since Gold and Platinum Medallion members earn 100% bonus miles on all paid tickets and Diamond Medallions earn 125% bonus SkyMiles. Meanwhile the American Express Delta Platinum card earns 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar at the $25,000 and $50,000 spend thresholds and the Delta Reserve card earns 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar at the $30,000 and $60,000 thresholds.

      Meanwhile on the redemption side, Delta has 3 redemption levels (versus the 2 redemption levels offered by most of the other traditional airlines) and availability at the "low" level is notoriously hard to come by.

      Personally, I think the two factors balance each other out fairly evenly: miles are about as much easier to earn as they are harder to redeem. On the other hand, there's no denying the amount of frustration caused by the cost of Delta award tickets. I come from a family of Delta flyers, and trust me, I hear a LOT of complaints about low-level award availability on Delta. My brother called me the other day and asked, "Why does an award trip to Indiana cost 32,500 miles?"

      I asked him, "How much is a paid ticket?" It was over $600, which would give him a value of over 1.8 cents per SkyMile! That's not bad, especially since as a Gold Medallion he earns double miles on all his paid flights.

      Still, I eventually end up with virtually all of my award tickets booked at the "low" level, and I want to give a quick rundown of the techniques I use to make sure I don't spend more SkyMiles than I have to.

      Before you Start

      Before you start looking for award tickets, there are two things you should do if at all possible: 

      1. Have elite status. Platinum and Diamond Medallions are allowed unlimited, free "Award Redeposit/Reissue" up to 72 hours before an award flight. Importantly, changes are still allowed after you've flown your outbound leg.
      2. Have a Delta American Express card. This will give you access to increased economy award availability on domestic routes. If you aggressively manufacture spend, the Platinum and Reserve cards also make it easier to reach a higher Medallion status. Now that the Gold card no longer comes with an annual $99 companion ticket, it's probably only worth signing up for with a monster bonus, like the 70,000 SkyMile offer about 6 months back.

      While you're Searching

      Since the Delta award calendar function doesn't work, to find low-level availability you'll probably need to search for each leg of your trip separately.

      1. Use ITA Matrix to find possible routes, then start plugging dates and legs into the Delta award search engine. I recommend using an "Incognito" or "Private Browsing" window to do this: once the booking engine stops returning any useful results, close the window, open a new one, and continue where you left off.
      2. Your total mile cost will be the average of your outbound and inbound legs.
      3. The cost of your outbound and inbound legs will be the cost of the most expensive cabin on each leg at the most expensive level on each leg. For example, if your outbound leg is JFK-SLC-LAX, and you have found low-level first class availability for the JFK-SLC flight, but only high-level economy for the SLC-LAX flight, then you'll be charged for first class (most expensive cabin) at the high level (most expensive level).
      4. If you're booking an international trip, start by looking for your international flights. Once you've found low-level availability for your international segments, you can start looking for availability for your domestic connections.
      5. Use the "Multi-city"  booking function to feed the flights you've found to Delta one-by-one. It helps to take screenshots as you go, or at least write down the exact flights you find.

      After you've Booked

      If you don't have Platinum or Diamond Medallion status, then congratulations, you're done! If you do have one of those, then you can start looking for better connections and lower-level flights. This is not particularly glamorous, but it's definitely worth it to get the most out of your miles.

      Here's an example: for my current award trip, I had my return booked in BusinessElite non-stop from Prague to JFK, and then in economy from JFK to Boston Logan, since that's all I could find at the low level. But every morning as part of my ritual I would log into Delta and spend 35 seconds seeing if any first class availability had opened up at the "low" level. This morning I was pleased to see that it had. As a Platinum Medallion, I could switch from economy to first class on that flight for free (since I had already technically booked a first class ticket: that was the "highest cabin" I had booked on that leg).

      If you have a "medium" or "high" level award booked, you can also call in and have the difference in miles refunded if "low" level availability appears.

      Schedule Changes

      A similar technique applies if you don't have Platinum or Diamond Medallion status: if a significant schedule change happens you can request that your ticket be refunded. However, you only have one chance to do this, so you should wait until low-level availability appears, then request the refund and rebook your low-level ticket.

      @DeltaAssist

      I've never had a problem simply calling into the Platinum Medallion service line and having my tickets reissued at the "low" level, or in first class – until today, when I was connected to an inexperienced agent who was unable to reissue just my JFK-BOS segment. Instead of following the rule of "hang up; call back," I decided to see if Delta's Twitter customer service team could make the change for me instead. I've used @DeltaAssist for everything from canceling an upgrade request to thanking a particularly helpful phone agent, but I'd never asked them to move me from economy to first class on an award ticket.

      It turns out it worked perfectly: I tweeted them my confirmation number and the flight on which first class award availability had opened up, and they were able to reissue my ticket within about 5 minutes. Just another thing I'll be using the Twitter team for from now on! 

      Comparing co-branded airline credit cards

      Hard at work on the second edition of The Free-quent Flyer's Manifesto and re-reading Chapter 4, it occurred to me that it might be useful to give a side-by-side breakdown of the similarities and differences between the co-branded credit cards of the principal US airlines.

      In the second edition I'm adding Alaska Airlines to the list of traditional airlines given detailed treatment, along with Delta, US Airways, American Airlines, and United. Why? Alaska's route map makes them far from a regional carrier; their partnerships with American and Delta make their Mileage Plan program more flexible than miles with either AAdvantage or Skymiles alone; and their co-branded Bank of America credit card has a number of lucrative features.

      What kinds of co-branded credit cards exist?

      For all the traditional carriers except US Airways and Alaska Airlines, there are two kinds of co-branded credit cards: an "entry-level" card that offers some combination of a free checked bag, priority boarding, annual companion tickets, and sometimes a bonus for meeting a high annual spend target; and a "club-level" card that gives lounge access, plus some combination of the above. This basic picture is made a little more complicated by the fact that Delta also splits its "entry-level" cards into a Gold and Platinum American Express: the Gold has a lower annual fee, but substantially fewer benefits. Note: do not confuse the American Express Platinum cards with American Express Delta Platinum cards. The names are similar; the products are completely different.

      US Airways and Alaska Airlines both have entry-level cards, but no club cards. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the entry-level cards available from each airline:

      Take note of the following differences between these cards:

      • The annual fee on all these cards is waived the first year of card membership, except for the $150 annual fee for the American Express Delta Platinum card (although signup bonuses sometimes include statement credits of up to $100).
      • All the cards offer 1 mile per dollar spent on purchases, and 2 miles per dollar spent on purchases with the airline, except the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, which offers 3 miles per dollar spent on Alaska.
      • The US Airways and Alaska Airlines companion tickets are available during your first, fee-free year, and every subsequent year. The Delta Platinum companion ticket is only earned the second year of card membership, after paying the $150 annual fee a second time.
      • The MileagePlus Explorer card offers 10,000 redeemable United miles after spending $25,000 on the card; the Delta Platinum card awards both redeemable and Medallion Qualifying Miles for high spend on the card.

      Here is a comparison of the Club-level cards from United, American Airlines, and Delta:

      Note that unlike the AAdvantage and United cards, the American Express Delta Reserve card does not technically give you a Sky Club membership; rather, it gives you Sky Club access, but only while you're flying on a Delta-issued or Delta-operated ticket.

      Who should sign up for a co-branded credit card?

      n my view, there are four reasons to sign up for a co-branded airline credit card, rather than a card that offers double or triple flexible points on airline purchases, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or American Express Premier Rewards Gold cards:

        1. High signup bonuses. These cards periodically feature very high signup bonuses, high enough to justify applying for a card even if you have never set foot on the airline before. For example, the Citi AAdvantage ard offers up to 50,000 AAdvantage miles (my lifetime American Airlines miles flown are about 11,000), American Express Delta Gold occasionally offers 70,000 Skymiles, and I signed up for the United MileagePlus Explorer card when it was offering 65,000 miles. Since the annual fees on these cards are waived the first year, these are incredible offers of $1,000 or more in value for the cost of a hard inquiry on your credit report.
        2. You're a Delta frequent flyer. The American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve cards give you the opportunity to "mileage run from home" and earn 20,000 or 30,000 Medallion Qualification Miles per year through high spend bonuses. This is a no-brainer, especially if this is the difference between Silver Medallion and Gold Medallion status, since that's when the Medallion mileage bonus rises from 25% to 100%.
        3. You only fly occasionally, or fly a secondary airline, and check bags. If you have a preferred airline, where you receive free checked bags because of your elite status, but occasionally have to fly another airline because the fares are substantially cheaper, then you may save money on checked bag fees by carrying a Delta, United, or American co-branded credit card. Here in New England, I fly Delta whenever possible (because I receive unlimited complimentary Medallion upgrades to First Class, and I prefer Delta's in-flight product, even in Economy), but sometimes United flights are so much cheaper that I can't justify paying the premium to fly Delta. In these cases, it's helpful to carry the MileagePlus Explorer card in order to check bags for free.
        4. You pay for a lounge membership. In almost all cases, you're better off receiving your lounge access by paying the annual fee for a Club-level card, and also receiving the benefits of the co-branded card, like the United Club card's high earning rate and the elite-qualifying miles generated by high spend on the AAdvantage Executive and Delta Reserve cards.

        "True" credit card earning rates

        Nothing's ever simple in the world of loyalty programs, and that's doubly true f credit card rewards.  While most cards seem to offer a straightforward earning structure of 1 point per dollar, in fact that number can be somewhat higher because of bonuses that accrue either annually or at certain high levels of spending.  If you don't take those bonuses into account, you're not correctly evaluating the earning rate of your rewards credit cards.

        Today we'll take a look at several popular rewards-earning credit cards nd compute the true earning rate on each.

        Chase Sapphire Preferred

        The Sapphire Preferred is a good example of a card with a "hidden" bonus.  Every calendar year (not cardmember year) in early January you're awarded a 7% bonus on all the Ultimate Rewards point you earned the previous calendar year.  This means that on unbonused spending, you earn a total of 1.07 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar, and on bonused spending (travel and restaurants) you earn a total of 2.14 points per dollar.

        After the first year of card membership, the Sapphir Preferred has an annual fee of $95.  Valuing Ultimate Rewards points at 1 cent each (their cash redemption value; much higher value can be realized by redeeming them for travel or transferring them to airline, hotel, and rail partners), the first $9,500 you spend on the card each year only earns you enough points to pay your annual fee.  Taking into account the 7% annual bonus, however, you earn enough Ultimate Rewards points to pay the annual fee after only $8,879 in spending, a fairly low amount if you're manufacturing spend.

        United MileagePlus Explorer

        The MileagePlus Explorer card earns 1 mile per dollar on most spending.  However, if you spend $25,000 in any calendar year on the card, you earn an additional 10,000 bonus miles.  This makes the true earning rate on the card 1.4 miles per dollar, if you are able to spend exactly $25,000.  This card is essentially only worth spending any money on (after meeting the minimum spending required by the bonus you signed up for) if you intend to spend exactly $25,000, since the Sapphire Preferred has the same annual fee and allows transfers to United, while also allowing you to redeem your points for cash, travel, or transfers to other travel partners.

        Platinum Delta American Express

        Like the nited MileagePlus Explorer, the Platinum Delta card gives a bonus of 10,000 redeemable miles after spending $25,000 on the card in any calendar year.  However, along with the bonus redeemable miles, it also awards 10,000 valuable Medallion Qualification Miles (MQM), which can make a huge difference when qualifying for elite status.  Unlike the MileagePlus Explorer, the Platinum Delta card awards another 10,000 redeemable miles and 10,000 MQM at $50,000 in calendar year spending.

        Most travel hackers who carry the Platinum Delta Amex therefore attempt to spend exactly $25,000 or $50,000 on the card each calendar year.  t those levels of spending, the card earns 1.4 miles per dollar, plus 10,000 or 20,000 valuable MQM.

        Reserve Delta American Express

        The Reserve card has a similar earning structure to the Platinum card, except instead of earning 10,000 mile bonuses at $25,000 and $50,000, the card earns 15,000 bonus miles and MQM after $30,000 and $60,000 in spending.

        At those evels of spending, the Reserve card earns 1.5 miles per dollar, plus 15,000 or 30,000 MQM.

         

        American Express Premier Rewards Gold

        The Premier Rewards Gold card earns 1 flexible Membership Rewards point per dollar on ost spending.  At $30,000 in calendar year spending, the card earns an additional 15,000 Membership Rewards points.  If you are able to spend exactly $30,000 on the card, then you'll earn a total of 1.5 points per dollar.

        Bank of America Virgin Atlantic Credit Card

        The Virgin Atlantic card has a quite complicated earning structure.  On most purchases, the card earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent.  Then at $15,000 in purchases per cardmember year (not calendar year, like with the American Express cards), on the card anniversary, the card also awards 7,500 miles if you reached $15,000 in spend and another 7,500 if you reached $25,000 in spend.  However, you must renew the card for an additional year in order to receive the miles (unless you are able to cancel the card after the miles post and have the annual fee waived).  So the true earning rate of this card is 2 miles per dollar if you spend exactly $15,000 and 2.1 miles per dollar if you spend exactly $25,000 each year of card membership.  Since these miles transfer at a 1:2 ratio to Hilton HHonors points, this is like earning 4.2 HHonors points on all purchases, slightly better than the fee-free Hilton American Express card.  However, since the Virgin Atlantic card has a $90 annual fee, you would have to value the marginal 30,000 Hilton HHonors points at over .3 cents each in order to justify paying the annual fee each year and claiming the anniversary bonus.  

        he card is probably not worth getting just for the 20,000 miles signup bonus, since the annual fee is not waived the first year

        Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

        The Arrival World MasterCard earns 2 points per dollar spent on the card, and each point can be redeemed for 1 cent towards travel purchases ade with the card.  However, the card also gives a 10% rebate on all redemptions, meaning you earn approximately 2.22 cents for each dollar spent on the card.  I say "approximately," since when you redeem points received from the 10% point rebate, you'll receive another 10% rebate on those points, ad infinitum.  Thus if you redeem 100,000 points you'll receive a 10,000 point rebate, and when you redeem those points you'll receive another 1,000 point rebate, then a 10 point rebate, then a 1 point rebate.  Add it up and  $50,000 in spending earns 111,111 points ($1111.11 towards travel redemptions), a 2.22 point per dollar earning rate, which gives it a slight earning advantage over the 2% cash rebate Fidelity Investment Rewards cards.  However, the Arrival World MasterCard has a $89 annual fee after the first year of card membership.  To pay for that annual fee with the marginal earning advantage, you'd need to spend $40,050 on the MasterCard!  In other words, after the first year only spending above $40,000 is more lucrative than the Fidelity 2% cash back cards, which is probably unrealistic unless you have high business expenses you can charge to the card, or enough spare cash to consider aggressively making Kiva loans with the card.

         

        However, the annual fee is waived the first year, so thanks to its competitive earning rate this is a good card to consider including in a credit card application cycle, as long as you're sure to cancel it before you pay the annual fee for the second year.