Guest post: Triggering MERRILL+ Delta SkyClub membership

Today's post was written by friend and longtime reader of the blog Robert Dwyer, about his experience with the no-annual-fee Merrill Lynch MERRILL+ Visa Signature card, which many people signed up for when it was offering a signup bonus of 50,000 points, which could be redeemed for two tickets worth up to $500 each.

You can find Robert on Twitter @RobertDwyer.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to one and all!

—The Free-quent Flyer

Guest post: Triggering Merrill+ Delta SkyClub membership

The Merrill Lynch MERRILL+ Visa Signature card is an oddly charming credit card. For such an obscure product it has proven to be quite popular. And it was gone, at least for new signups, before we knew it.

But thanks to its generous 50,000 point signup bonus (worth 2 airline tickets up to $500 each, a combined value of up to $1,000) and no annual fee, a lot of people still have this card.

Full review over at Doctor of Credit.

Before you cancel it or entertain the thought of product changing to another BofA credit card, you might consider keeping it for the bonuses it offers for spending $50,000 each calendar year. You get your choice of:

  • A $200 air travel incidental credit -OR-
  • A Delta Sky Club Executive membership (which costs $745 or 70,000 Delta miles otherwise).

I like cards like this with a threshold bonus, especially since the points it earns for spend are worth up to 2 cents each towards air travel booked through their portal.

I opted to spend $50,000 on the card this year for the Delta Sky Club membership.

Why do this?

Pretty simple really: although the AmEx Platinum cards (the ones with $450+ annual fees) offer Delta lounge access, it’s not full-fledged access. You can’t bring guests. Not even your spouse, and definitely not your kids. The same is true of the AmEx Delta Reserve card: no guests for those who gain access through a credit card.

A full-fledged Delta SkyClub membership also means you can visit the Delta lounge when flying other airlines. You can’t do that if you gain access through a credit card: you must be flying Delta that day.

Although we’ve carried an AmEx Platinum card (or three) in one form or another over the past few years we’ve never been able to take advantage of Delta lounge access while traveling with our boys. That’s a bummer because I actually appreciate lounge access more when traveling with family than on business.

And given the routes Delta serves I’m more likely to be flying with them when traveling with my family than for business.

So although the full-fledged Delta SkyClub membership that comes with spending $50,000 on the MERRILL+ card is a seemingly minor delta (ha ha) over what you get with AmEx Platinum it actually takes me from a situation where I’ll rarely visit a Delta lounge, to being able to take advantage of it most times we fly.

How to do this

Frequent Miler wrote a piece on whether it was worth it to spend $50,000 on the card. His conclusion: It’s not worth it. What a killjoy!

But his post was helpful thanks to a screenshot describing how to activate the SkyClub membership.

  1. Call 800-419-0000 and ask for “Benefits”
  2. Tell the rep you’ve spend $50,000 on the card this calendar year and would like to take advantage of the SkyClub membership benefit
  3. They’ll confirm that your spend level, ask for your SkyMiles membership number, and activate your membership

My experience leveraging this benefit

We were flying Delta for Thanksgiving with a connection so I called to active the SkyMiles membership about a week in advance. I was pleased that the rep I spoke to (on a Saturday morning no less, no bankers' hours for these guys) knew exactly what I was talking about and swiftly activated my SkyClub membership. He told me that my membership materials would arrive in a couple weeks but that if I was visiting a lounge in the next week or so I could give them my SkyMiles number and I’d be able to get into the lounge.

I was leery of this going through without incident so I checked my Delta profile the day we were set to fly, both on my computer and the Delta app. I didn’t see any indication the access had been activated so I called Delta to check. They didn’t have any record of it, but hinted that the SkyMiles desk isn’t so tightly linked with the SkyClub people so I might want to just give it a go at the airport and see what happens.

When we got the airport I provided my SkyMiles number and we were welcomed in without incident. The whole family! Take that, overcrowded Delta lounge.

A week or so later my membership card arrived, indicating an activation date roughly 2 weeks after my initial call to MERRILL+ to activate the membership with an expiration date a year out.

The timing of the start of the membership is a little strange. The Merrill rep told me the membership would start on the first day of the month in which I called. Yet the activation date on the card I received coincided with the date of my first visit, which was not the first day of the month.

Not sure what to say there in terms of optimizing the start time of a membership, but the upshot is it’s nice that you can call ahead of your first planned use and access the club without the physical card. And now that my membership is active I see it in My Wallet within the Delta app.

Now I’m free to enjoy Delta’s network of mostly mediocre, sometimes overcrowded lounges. With the whole family!

Bottom line

Earning full-fledged Delta lounge access through spend on the MERRILL+ card might be worth it for some, especially those who travel with family or colleagues.

The opportunity cost of spending $50,000 on the card isn’t so bad when you consider:

  1. the card has no annual fee;
  2. and the card earns up to 2 cents per point towards airfare (so it isn’t that far off the earn rate of the top cashback cards).

Sure there are better cards that earn 2.6525% or even 3% cashback (for some period of time after signup, with barriers to entry getting and maintaining eligibility for those cards). But I find it’s a good practice to spread your spend around. It’s theoretically possible, but practically difficult to put 100% of your spend on a single card.

If you’ve got an existing MERRILL+ card and a Delta SkyClub Executive Membership appeals to you, I think this can be a nice play.

FQF's wrapup

For me the biggest takeaway from Robert's post are that while the "Plus Level" benefit is earned on a calendar year spending basis, it's valid for one year from when you redeem it. While that doesn't increase the value of the membership ($745, or however much you choose to value a SkyClub Executive Membership), it does increase the value of the benefit, since you can time the activation of the benefit so that as many of your trips through airports with Delta SkyClubs fall within the benefit year as possible.

Additionally, note that according to the Doctor of Credit post linked above you can "top up" airfares in excess of $500 by redeeming MERRILL+ points for one cent each for the excess amount. That means you should always at least consider booking more convenient or premium cabin airfares in order to get the price of your ticket up to at least $500 in order to get the full 2 cents per point in value from the first 25,000 points of your redemption.