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.


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.


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.

Blending earning and redemption rates

When an affiliate blogger is trying to sell you a credit card that allows you to redeem bank points against a travel purchase, they sometimes pull this fairly ingenious, if transparent, sleight of hand:

  • When you earn airline miles for a purchase, then redeem those miles for travel, the value you get per dollar spent depends on the value you get per airline mile.
  • When you earn bank points and redeem them against a paid flight purchase, you don't just get the value of your bank points, you also get the value of any airline miles earned for your paid flight.
  • Therefore you should value a dollar spent with, for example, a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card not as the 1.5 cents in travel you get, but as 1.5 cents plus the airline miles those 1.5 cents in airfare will earn.

Did you catch the switch? All the work here is being done by the value of a dollar, a value which the blogger then assigns to whichever credit card has the highest signup bonus this week.

I thought of this yesterday because I'm in the process of booking a couple of spring and summer trips, and found myself in a somewhat related situation.

A Southwest Business Select fare buys a lot of Wanna Get Away fare

When I was booking my Southwest ticket to Montego Bay using US Bank Flexpoints, I booked a Business Select fare since Wanna Get Away fares weren't available and the difference in cost between Business Select and Anytime didn't move my fare into a higher Flexperks redemption band.

This creates the somewhat interesting situation wherein I redeemed 50,000 Flexpoints, worth $500 in cash, for a ticket worth $953.61, and earned 9,336 Rapid Rewards points, worth roughly $93 in Ultimate Rewards points I wouldn't have to transfer to Southwest in the future.

That future turned out to be yesterday, when I booked a ticket to Las Vegas for dates when Wanna Get Away fares are available. Since my ticket cost about 16,000 Rapid Rewards points, I only had to transfer 7,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $70, to Southwest to buy my ticket.

Now, it's worth saying that actual Southwest Airlines enthusiasts don't run into this situation: they book Wanna Get Away fares on every flight they're even remotely considering taking as soon as the schedule opens up, knowing they can cancel all their unwanted flights up to 10 minutes before departure.

But since I'm not a Southwest enthusiast, I was pleasantly surprised to see my best, cheapest choice for one flight earn over half the cost of my next flight on Southwest, which was also my best, cheapest option.

My first Delta Pay with Miles redemption

As long-time readers know, I earn 1.4 miles per dollar spent on my Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express card by spending $50,000 each calendar year (or sometimes slightly more for technical reasons).

In order to break even against a 2.105% cash back credit card, my overall objective is to get about 1.5 cents per SkyMile on my award redemptions. If I can break even on my spend in that way, then I'll end up paying a $195 annual fee for 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and a domestic economy companion ticket.

Meanwhile, Delta-operated flights have a kind of "floor" on redemptions of 1 cent per SkyMile, since you can use Delta's Pay with Miles feature to reduce the price of revenue tickets by that amount: 10,000 SkyMiles reduces the cost of your ticket by $100, for example.

With all that said, today I made two Delta SkyMiles redemptions, both below my target threshold of 1.5 cents each!

I needed to book two one-way tickets, with a retail price of $362.80 and a SkyMiles award ticket price of 32,500 SkyMiles and $5.60 in fees. That produces a redemption rate of 1.1 cents per SkyMile for an award ticket, or just 1.54% cash back for purchases with my American Express card. Since I had the SkyMiles in my account, and I know my miles are worth nothing until they're redeemed, I booked my partner's ticket that way.

For my own ticket, I used the Pay with Miles option to redeem 35,000 SkyMiles against $350 of the fare, and pay $12.80 in cash for the remainder, getting exactly 1 cent per SkyMile in value. However, since Pay with Miles tickets now earn Medallion Qualification Miles, I'll also earn 2,663 Medallion Qualification Miles for the ticket. Compared to the award ticket redemption I booked for my partner, I'm paying 2,500 SkyMiles and $7.20 for 2,663 Medallion Qualification Miles.

From a pure imputed redemption value perspective, these two redemptions together leave me with a shortfall of $305.30, getting just $707.20 in cash value compared to the $1,012.50 I needed to break even on the prorated amount of spend (67,500 out of 70,000 SkyMiles).

What do these redemptions have in common?

I connected these redemptions in my mind because I happened to be making both of them on the same day. But they also both illustrate that, for me, there's no such thing as the perfect redemption: there's only the perfect redemption for the moment.

Instead of refusing to fly Southwest unless there were Wanna Get Away fares available, I redeemed fixed value points for the flights I actually wanted to take, and earned a boatload of Rapid Rewards points towards a future redemption. On the other hand, instead of redeeming SkyMiles at a low valuation, I redeemed them at an even lower valuation in order to accumulate a few thousand more Medallion Qualification Miles.

Finally, what all these redemptions have in common is that they let me pay as little as possible for the trips I want to take. And that, for me, is what travel hacking will always be about.


While the affiliate blogger version of this phenomenon is a barely-concealed attempt to sell credit cards, there's another element that rings perfectly true: earning a combination of fixed-value points, flexible points, and brand-specific currencies may give you the opportunity to leverage currencies against each other.

On the other hand, such a combination may cause you to orphan points in multiple programs without every getting sufficient value from any of them.

Thinking about Hyatt Diamond requalification

I took advantage of the Hyatt Diamond status match late last year and have been enjoying my suite upgrades, free breakfast, lounge access, and check-in amenities for over half a year now. With just under 5 months left to requalify, I've been giving some thought to whether and how to do so.

Whether to requalify

I have a high baseline level of skepticism that elite status benefits are worth paying anything for.

For example, I manufacture elite status on Delta with a Business Platinum American Express card, but I also earn 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent when I meet the $25,000 and $50,000 annual spend thresholds. Since SkyMiles are the airline currency I use most frequently and to greatest effect, I manufacture spend on the card with the SkyMiles in mind, and appreciate the bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles merely as an ancillary benefit.

Requalifying for Hyatt Diamond status has a related logic: since Hyatt Gold Passport points are some of the most useful points, thanks to how easy they are to earn through Ultimate Rewards transfers, qualifying for Diamond status means getting more value from points I'll redeem anyway. I'm not going to try to quantify that additional value — I'm pointing out the difference between elite status in programs you already use aggressively and elite status in programs you use infrequently or never, like the periodic elite status challenges you see offered by airlines.

How to requalify

Hyatt Diamond status requires 25 paid or Points + Cash stays, or 50 paid or Points + Cash nights during the calendar year. There are three important things to consider when deciding on a path to requalification: the Chase Hyatt credit card; requalifying on stays; and requalifying on nights.

Chase Hyatt Credit Card elite-qualifying stays and nights

The Chase Hyatt credit card gives 2 elite-qualifying stays and 5 elite-qualifying nights after spending $20,000, and 3 additional elite-qualifying stays and 5 additional elite-qualifying nights after spending a total of $40,000 during the calendar year. If you spend $40,000 on the card, and value Hyatt Gold Passport points at the 1 cent each you can buy them for with a transfer from Ultimate Rewards, you'll pay $400 in foregone cash back for 5 stays and 10 nights, compared to a 2% cashback card.

Whether that's cheap or expensive depends both on your alternatives and on whether you decide to requalify on stays or nights.

Requalifying on stays

Qualifying with elite-qualifying stays is the option that gets the most attention from travel hackers for three reasons.

First, it's much cheaper to mattress run for additional stays than additional nights. If you are requalifying on stays and get 80% of the way to Diamond status (20 stays), you only need to book 5 more one-night stays. If you are requalifying on nights and get 80% of the way to Diamond status (40 nights), you need to book twice as many more nights, at double the cost.

Second, requalifying on stays allows you to mix and match your booking options. Since Hyatt guarantees standard room award availability, you can book just one night of each stay with cash or Points + Cash, and the remaining nights using only points. This is, in fact, the strategy I've been following this year.

Finally, requalifying on stays allows you to rapidly earn stay credits on longer trips by moving between multiple Hyatt properties in the same city. For example, the Andaz 5th Avenue is just 2 street blocks from the Grand Hyatt New York. It would get old fast, but if you travel alone or have understanding travel companions, on a 5-night stay in New York City you could earn 5 stay credits alternating between the two hotels each night.

As indicated above, if you choose to requalify on stays, then the Chase Hyatt credit card will earn you 5 stays for $400, or $80 each. Is that cheap or expensive? In general, it is cheaper than mattress running with Points + Cash stays unless you have access to Category 1 properties. Those Category 1 Hyatt properties cost 2,500 Hyatt Gold Passport points and $50 per night, plus taxes. If you're able to mattress run at one of the 12 Category 1 Hyatt Regency properties in the Americas (there are many more in the Asia/Pacific region), you'll be able to select a 1,000-point Diamond amenity and earn 325 Hyatt Gold Passport points per stay, bringing your total cost down to $61.75, plus taxes, cheaper than the $80 you'd pay manufacturing spend with the Chase Hyatt credit card.

Using the same logic, even a Category 2 Hyatt Regency Points + Cash stay would cost $81.42, plus taxes (the proof of this is left as an exercise for the reader).

Requalifying on nights

While the case for requalifying for Diamond status on stays is strong, it's not airtight.

Looking at my own stay history this year, I have 7 elite-qualifying stays and 15 elite-qualifying nights. But I have also redeemed 7 free nights. If I had booked those nights as elite-qualifying Points + Cash nights, I'd be at 22 total nights, or 44% of the way to Diamond status, whereas by trying to requalify on stays, I'm only 28% of the way there.

Of course, I had reasons for booking those nights as free awards: 4 of them were redemptions of Chase Hyatt credit card certificates, for example, which can't be booked as elite-qualifying nights!

There are three key questions when deciding whether to requalify on stays or nights: the average length of your stay, the availability of Points + Cash award availability, and the category of property you typically stay in.

If your average length of stay is less than 2 nights, you're strictly better off requalifying on stays, because twice as many nights than stays are required to requalify. This is true even if you have more than 25 stays or more than 50 nights! That's because the more easily you can qualify, the more flexibility you have in selecting between free nights, Points + Cash, and paid stays, and flexibility in this game is worth a lot.

If your average length of stay is 2 nights or longer, then you have to consider the category of property you typically stay in and the availability of Points + Cash award availability. Two extreme examples illustrate this point: if you stay exclusively at Category 7 properties, each night you book with Points + Cash instead of just points costs $150 in extra Hyatt Gold Passport points — that's an expensive elite-qualifying night! If you stay exclusively at Category 1 properties, each night you book with Points + Cash costs just $25 per elite-qualifying night, plus taxes. However, if the properties you stay at don't regularly make Points + Cash awards available, you're out of luck: back to requalifying on stays.

Manufacturing spend on the Chase Hyatt credit card, at $40 in foregone cash back per night, is far superior to mattress running for nights, which even with Points + Cash awards starts at $61.75, as shown above. However, if you already stay 50 nights per year at Hyatt properties, the Chase Hyatt credit card elite-qualifying nights are inferior to simply swapping your award nights for Points + Cash nights, which only requires a "top-up" of $15-25 in Hyatt Gold Passport points (until you get to Category 7 properties).


I already have 2 additional elite-qualifying stays booked, with another 2 planned. Together with the Chase Hyatt credit card elite-qualifying stays, those trips will get me to 16 of the required 25 stays. To mattress run for the 9 remaining elite-qualifying stays at a Category 1 Hyatt Regency property would cost $555.75, plus taxes, which is out of the question.

On the other hand, I haven't planned my fall and winter travel yet, so it's still possible that enough real trips will come along to either get me over the finish line naturally, or get me close enough to mattress run for the final few stays.

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, apply a 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.


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.

Done with Delta (SkyMiles)

[editor's note: my worthless Macbook Pro has finally stopped working completely, so I'm using an aged clamshell laptop for my blogging this week. Grammar and punctuation will suffer, and pictures will be minimal/nonexistent.]

I had an enlightening moment on Saturday when I saw on Twitter that Loyalty Lobby had posted an offer for 10,500 Expedia+ Rewards points for booking 6 nights at "VIP Access Hotels" in 2016.

What I realized was that not only was I not interested booking 6 nights at VIP Access Hotels, I wasn't even interested in reading about the offer.

Now to be fair, that's partly because Loyalty Lobby has a terrible website that takes over your web browser with popups and terrible rendering. But it's also because the online hotel booking engines have so gutted their loyalty programs that no number of reward points elicits even the slightest interest compared to straightforward Hilton and Hyatt points redemptions, or simply paying for hotel nights.

Math isn't dispositive — but it's helpful

I wrote on December 31, 2015, that I was going to use the American Express Delta Platinum Business credit card to manufacture $50,000 in spend this year, in order to earn 70,000 SkyMiles and 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles, securing Silver Medallion status (and free checked bags) for 2017.

Since the Delta American Express cards don't have any interesting bonus categories, all $50,000 in manufactured spend would be done in unbonused spend categories, costing roughly $1,000 compared to a 2% cash back card.

As a Delta American Express cardholder, I could redeem the 70,000 redeemable SkyMiles for $700 in airfare on Delta-operated flights, leaving me roughly $300 out of pocket.

Except the card also carries a $195 annual fee, which will be charged in April, bringing the total cost for the calendar year to $495. And unlike actual travel expenses, annual fees have to be paid for with cash!

To look at it another way, to get $1,195 in value (a $195 annual fee plus $1,000 in foregone cash back) from 70,000 redeemable SkyMiles, you'd need to consistently redeem them for over 1.7 cents each. That's not impossible, but Delta has certainly made it harder in the last few years.

What does $495 buy?

Using the first, conservative calculation and valuing SkyMiles at a flat 1 cent each, my total cost for carrying the American Express Delta Platinum Business card is $495. So what would I be getting for that out-of-pocket expense?

  • Domestic companion ticket. If I paid cash for my Delta revenue tickets, a companion ticket would be potentially worth $300-400. But since I don't pay cash for my Delta revenue tickets, a companion ticket is worth perhaps a quarter of that, thanks to price compression. Let's say the companion ticket is worth about $100.
  • Free checked bags in 2017. I've already requalified for 2016 Silver Medallion status, but keeping the Platinum card for another year and manufacturing $50,000 in spend would give me Silver Medallion status for all of 2017 as well. To make up the remaining $395 in out-of-pocket cost, I'd need to check bags on something like 8 roundtrip flights in 2017, at $50 per bag, per roundtrip flight.
  • More SkyMiles on paid flights in 2017. If Delta keeps the same redeemable SkyMiles earning rates in 2017, then Silver Medallion status is good for an additional 2 SkyMiles per dollar spent on Delta flights in 2017. At one cent each, I'd need to spend $19,750 on paid Delta flights in 2017 to break even. But I only earned $1,870 2015 Medallion Qualification Dollars, a rough approximation of the total ticket price of my paid flights. It's possible I'll spend 10 times more on paid Delta flights in 2017 than I did in 2015 — but unlikely.

First Class tickets aren't that expensive

The additional problem is that, thanks to price compression, there's no reason to book economy tickets that require paying for checked bags at all. If you're buying paid flights for 75% off retail, then for all roundtrip first class flights costing less than $200 more than economy, you'll be strictly better off booking the first class flight and checking your bags for free, since you're paying less than $50 for your checked bag (and earning class-of-service bonus miles).

That's not all flights: there certainly are domestic routes where first class tickets cost more than $200 more than economy flights. But when you're working your way back from a $495 deficit, you need to book a LOT of those flights before you break even, compared to simply booking first class seats to begin with.

So I'm done chasing after Delta SkyMiles

Delta is still the best airline in the United States, and I'll keep flying them whenever possible because of their unparalleled air and ground operations.

But the idea of that translating into paying another $195 annual fee, and $1,000 in foregone cash back, just doesn't make any sense to me anymore.

And it's all thanks to Loyalty Lobby's terrible website.

The 5.5 cards I'll use to manufacture spend in 2016

Happy New Year's Eve to all my readers (and especially to my beloved subscribers)!

2016 is almost upon us, so I thought it might be interesting to share my manufactured spend strategy for the first half of next year.

Here are the five cards I'll be doing virtually all my manufactured spend on for the next 6 months, plus a bonus card to fill in the remaining gaps.

Wells Fargo Rewards

I applied for this card back in March while opening my Wells Fargo checking account, but was declined for income verification reasons. When I received a pre-approval offer in the mail, I jumped on it and was approved with a $10,000 credit limit.

This card earns 5 Wells Fargo Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores for the first 6 months, making it my manufactured spend workhorse until June, 2016.

Chase Ink Plus

Although gas station manufactured spend is no longer available in my area, I will continue to order $300 Visa gift cards from Staples and earn 1,545 flexible Ultimate Rewards points for $8.95 — about 0.58 cents each.

As a Hyatt Diamond in 2016, I plan to make a lot of Points + Cash reservations, which both earn elite qualifying stays and are eligible for Diamond suite upgrades. For those reservations, I'll be transferring in a lot of Hyatt Gold Passport points from Ultimate rewards.

US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards

This card earns "up to" 4% at grocery stores when you redeem your Flexpoints for air travel. That's less valuable and less flexible than my Wells Fargo Rewards card, but when that card's credit limit isn't available, Flexperks Travel Rewards will be my backup card at grocery stores.

American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business

Even less valuable than Flexperks, I'll spend $50,000 on this card in order to earn 70,000 redeemable SkyMiles and 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles, enough to secure Silver Medallion status for 2017. Then I'll call American Express to ask for either a retention bonus or a product change to a more valuable card.

American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass

Thanks to my Hyatt Diamond status in 2016, I won't be staying with Hilton as consistently as I did in 2015. But I still plan to spend $40,000 on the Surpass in 2016 in order to both secure Diamond status for another year and earn another 240,000 HHonors points, which I'll redeem when Hyatt properties aren't available or are too expensive.

Bonus card: Barclaycard Arrival+

I won't be using Arrival+ nearly as much in 2016 as I did in 2015, but there are a few ideal use cases where I'll continue to generate some spend: funding Nationwide Visa Buxx cards, opening bank accounts, and my actual expenses outside of the Wells Fargo Rewards bonus categories.


As you can see, I keep my manufactured spend practice pretty simple: start with the most valuable cards I have available, set realistic goals, and work my way down from there. That has the additional benefit of giving me the clarity to see immediately which cards would see reduced spend if my ability to manufacture spend suddenly contracted.

American Express cards I'm thinking about


When I say that I don't chase signup bonuses, it sometimes gives readers the impression that I don't apply for new cards or that I don't think signup bonuses are a good deal. Nothing could be further from the truth!

If I need a new card, I'll apply for it, I'll call reconsideration lines, and I'll move credit around like anyone else hungry for approval. Likewise, if I'm planning to sign up for a card, I'll do my due diligence and hunt down the highest signup bonus available.

The difference, as I see it, come down to what cards I think I need. Since I earn the miles I redeem and redeem the miles I earn, I won't sign up for a new card just because it has a high signup bonus; I need to have a sense of where and when I'd redeem those miles. Otherwise, I might never redeem them and be left with a worthless novelty balance.

That being said, here are a few cards I'm currently thinking about adding to my collection.

Starwood Preferred Guest Business

I recently met the $50,000 spend threshold on my Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business American Express card, which makes the card all but useless for the rest of the calendar year. Last week I called American Express to ask which cards I was eligible to product change my card to, and was given two options: the Starwood Preferred Guest Business card, or the Blue for Business.

The latter product earns 1 non-flexible Membership Rewards point everywhere, which isn't very interesting, while the Starwood Preferred Guest card earns points that can be transferred to Delta, Alaska, or American (among others), in addition to booking Starwood hotel stays.

The main reason I'm interested in the Starwood card is for hotel stays. While Hilton is my primary hotel program because of their enormous footprint and the high bonused earning rate on the Hilton Surpass American Express, there are times when Hilton rooms aren't available or their properties are inconveniently located. At times like those, it's helpful to have points like Ultimate Rewards (for transfers to Hyatt) or Starpoints for booking alternatives.

On the one hand, requesting a product change to the Starwood Preferred Guest card would save me a hard credit pull and the risk of having my application denied. On the other hand, it would permanently cost me the 25,000 Starpoints I would earn if I applied for the card from scratch.

Ultimately, given the choice between canceling my Delta card, keeping it, or product changing to Starwood Preferred Guest, I'm leaning towards the product change, even if that means leaving 25,000 Starpoints on the table.

New "Old" Blue Cash

While my pre-devaluation "Old" Blue Cash card was closed by American Express in December, the "Old" Blue Cash card is still available, albeit in stunted form, and still earns up to $2,240 in annual cash back on purchases at supermarkets, gas stations, and drug stores. It's not as outrageously good a deal as it was before bonused earning was capped at $50,000 in yearly spend, but it's still low-hanging fruit, and I'm considering applying for another.

Amex EveryDay Preferred

While I'm not thrilled about the $95 annual fee, the EveryDay Preferred earns 4.5 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at grocery stores (on up to $6,000 in spend) and 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations (uncapped) when you make 30 purchases during your statement cycle.

I don't find Membership Rewards points to be particularly valuable, but this card would be a highly efficient method of earning Delta SkyMiles compared to my Delta Platinum Business American Express, and with a much lower annual fee. Delta is my primary airline program for domestic travel, so being able to earn those miles faster means paying less for the redemptions I already know I'm going to make.

The tradeoff, assuming I product change my Delta card to a Starwood card, would be giving up the opportunity to earn 20,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles per year through credit card spend.

However, I've already secured Silver Medallion status for 2016, and I don't trust Delta enough to pay a $195 annual fee purely in the hope that the SkyMiles program will retain value in 2017 and beyond.


When thinking about my credit card applications, as you can see above, signup bonuses play virtually no role in deciding whether to apply. If the Amex EveryDay Preferred is worth getting, it's worth getting in order to manufacture spend on the card year-round, not because its signup bonus was temporarily raised to 30,000 Membership Rewards points.

Likewise, for the convenience of a product change (keeping the same account number, avoiding a credit pull, etc.) I'll go so far as to permanently give up the chance to earn a 25,000 Starpoint signup bonus, because I believe the card is worth spending money on year-round, not just in order to trigger a one-time payday.

Loyalty is an expensive, annoying trap

I shared on Monday that over the weekend I was the proud recipient of $1,300 in Delta voluntary denied boarding compensation, and reflected on some of the possible consequences for the miles and points I'd budgeted for my upcoming travel.

Since I booked some speculative hotel rooms in Eastern Europe for next summer before the latest Club Carlson devaluation, but haven't booked our flights yet, I thought that would be a good place to see how far $1,300 in Delta transportation would get me.

The answer, it turns out, is pretty far! I was able to find this great itinerary flying into Prague and out of Frankfurt, for example, for $1,294, marketed and operated by Delta:

Since there are two of us going, I decided I'd use my Delta transportation voucher to fully pay for my ticket (since the voucher was issued in my name), then redeem FlexPoints or even SkyMiles for the other (if low-level award space opens up — fat chance!).

Silver Medallion status has (a few) privileges

Then I remembered: as a Silver Medallion, I get to choose Comfort+ seats within 24 hours of departure on Delta-operated flights for myself and companions flying on the same itinerary. If I book my partner and I on separate itineraries, I won't be able to select a Comfort+ seat for her without paying $129 for the outbound leg and $99 for the return.

Alternatively, I can book the two tickets on Delta's website, using the transportation voucher to cover the first $1,300 and paying cash for the balance. That would be way too expensive, even if I used my Arrival+ MasterCard to pay the the balance.

On domestic flights, you may or may not care about Comfort+ seating, but on two long-haul international flights, I don't think it's unreasonable to want some additional legroom in economy.

Loyalty makes easy decisions harder

I'll grant that this sounds like a corner case – a curiosity – and not a real problem. But in fact, I find myself in similar situations with some regularity.

Later this year we're flying to Portland to celebrate my partner's birthday. The flights I wanted cost $330, and were pricing out at 20,000 SkyMiles roundtrip. This is basically a wash: redeeming 20,000 FlexPoints would give me the equivalent of 3.33% cash back on $10,000 in spend, while redeeming SkyMiles would get me a 2.3% return on $14,285 in spend (since I earn 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent on my American Express Delta Platinum card).

Both returns exceed the 2.22% I'd earn with my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, so there's no wrong choice. On the one hand, my preference is to redeem SkyMiles as aggressively as possible, because of their rapidly dropping value. On the other hand, I'd like to keep my Alaska Airlines MVP status next year, and to do so I'll need all the paid Delta flights I can get.

So I split the difference: I redeemed SkyMiles for my partner's ticket, and FlexPoints for mine, for an average return of 2.72% on $24,285 in manufactured spend.

Here again, only I'll have access to Comfort+ seating, but additionally I'll have a free checked bag thanks to my Medallion status, while my partner will have to pile her firearms, knives, and dry ice into my bag in order to avoid Delta's checked bag fees.


Checked bag fees and charges for preferred seating are huge revenue sources for the airlines, and can be huge expenses for passengers willing to pay them. The free checked bags and preferred seats offered to elites are therefore real, tangible benefits of elite status.

But elite status also makes it easier to be guided by motivated reasoning, allowing you to justify decisions you wouldn't otherwise consider.

In my first example, Delta is presenting me with a false choice: buy a second cash ticket in order to secure my partner Comfort+ seating, or redeem Flexpoints for the second ticket and pay to upgrade my partner. It's a false choice because absent elite status we would both be fine sitting in Main Cabin seats!

In my second example, I'm redeeming valuable Flexpoints for my ticket instead of taking the opportunity to empty my SkyMiles account even further, all in order to earn a few thousand more Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan elite-qualifying miles.

Quick hit: my annual fees and retention offers

I wrote yesterday that I don't chase signup bonuses as one of my principle methods of earning miles and points. But I also consider recurring annual benefits to be worth almost nothing.

I've written before that companion tickets are scams, with the exception of the very generous version offered by Bank of America's Alaska Airlines — if you happen to live in a city served by Alaska — since it can be paid for with any credit card.

I've written before that annual free hotel nights are scams, although the Citi Hilton Reserve and Chase Hyatt free nights are slightly better than the rest — if you otherwise manufacture Hilton HHonors points or transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt.

And of course, I'm the leading proponent of the argument that airline statement credits are worth (much) less than cash.

Five annual fees I'm willing to pay

As a result, I carry only five cards with annual fees, and I pay those annual fees solely because I believe manufacturing spend on the cards makes them worth keeping for my own miles and points strategy:

  • Chase Ink+. Bonus earning at office supply stores and gas stations, and turns my non-flexible Chase Freedom Ultimate Rewards points into flexible Ultimate Rewards points. $95 annual fee.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Makes flying on paid airfares very cheap. $49 annual fee.
  • Barclaycard Arrival+. Makes hotels, Uber, and taxes and fees on award tickets cheap. $89 annual fee.
  • American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass. Makes hotels cheap. $75 annual fee.
  • American Express Delta Business Platinum. Makes Delta elite status cheap. $195 annual fee.

Even I'm willing to admit the Delta Business Platinum card is a marginal play, but I do really like checking bags, so the elite status is something I'm — for now — willing to pay for, as long as I'm also earning 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent with the card.

Don't pay annual fees you don't have to

Those are the annual fees I'm willing to pay. But I mostly don't.

  • On Wednesday I called the number on the back of my Ink+ card and explained I was trying to decide whether to keep the card. The frontline representative (no transfer required) offered me a $95 bonus statement credit to keep the card. $0 annual fee.
  • Every year I spend $24,000 on my Flexperks Travel Rewards card I receive 3,500 bonus Flexpoints, which I redeem against my annual fee. While the Flexpoints themselves are worth up to $70 when redeemed for airfare, this allows me to treat this card as a no-annual-fee card, which is my preference. $0 annual fee.
  • Each year I call Barclaycard and ask them to waive my annual fee. They have been happy to oblige for the last two years. $0 annual fee.
  • Also on Wednesday, I called American Express, told the computer I wanted to close my account, and was immediately directed to a representative who offered me a $50 statement credit to keep the card. $25 annual fee.
  • I haven't yet called American Express about my Delta Business Platinum card, whose annual fee I paid back in May. Hopefully they'll offer me something, although gunning for low-level Delta elite status is such a marginal play that I'll probably cancel the card anyway once I've secured status for the 2016 program year. $195 annual fee, minus a prorated refund.

Conclusion: your miles will vary

I assume one reason I have had luck so far with retention offers is that I spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on these cards.

If you spend less — or more — you'll find that the credit card companies have different offers for you, or possibly no offers at all, which is why it's important to know what annual fees you are willing to pay if you can't get them waived.

Only once you know how much you value a card, whether for its recurring annual bonuses or earning rate on manufactured spend, will you be able to decide whether the offers you receive from your credit card companies make it worth paying to keep your accounts open.