Which American Express 50% Transfer Bonus is Better: British Airways or Delta?

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Until July 31, 2011, you can transfer your American Express Membership Rewards Points to British Airways for a 50% bonus (see my original post for more details). Delta also has a 50% bonus for first time transferees that includes a 25,000 elite mile bonus when you transfer 100,000 or more miles, which is valid until September 30, 2011 (See that post here). Since many of you are rolling in Membership Rewards points due to bumping your Platinum card sign-up bonuses to 100,000, I’ve been getting a lot of queries on which transfer bonus is better. As with all things points-related, it depends on your situation. But since I’ve personally helped people redeem millions of miles using Delta and British Airways, here are some of my general tips on each program:

British Airways:
Positives: As a Oneworld Alliance member you can redeem for awards on American (and SAAver level award can be booked with BA miles), Cathay Pacific, Qantas, LAN Chile/Argentina/Peru, Iberia, Japan Airlines, FinnAir, Royal Jordanian, S7 and Malev. BA has other airline partners of Aer Lingus, Alaska and Kingfisher. BA allows one-way awards – even on partners. BA also allows unlimited stopovers, which can be huge value if utilized properly. The cash and miles option can be very lucrative, especially for coach redemptions.
Negatives: Huge fuel surcharges on flights to Europe (think $500 for a coach flight, $700 for business class and up to $1,000 or more for first class). 4 different award charts that have very high mileage if you combine multiple airlines on one award. Buggy website that does not let you book some partner awards and automatically tries routing you on BA flights through London, even if more direct partner options are available. Long hold times for US phone center representatives.

Positives: As a Skyteam Alliance member you can redeem awards on Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Czech, Korean, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Europa, China Eastern, China Southern, Vietnam, Tarom and Kenya. Other airline partners include: V Australia, Alaska, Air Tahiti Nui, Avianca, China, GOL, Hawaiian, Jet, Kingfisher and Malaysia. Delta has flexible routing on award tickets, including a stopover and an open-jaw. You can combine multiple alliance and other airline partners on awards. Delta makes it easy to get elite status – it’s possible to get top tier Diamond status without stepping on a plane if you take advantage of their credit card related MQM promotions. Miles never expire. Excess elite miles earned past an elite threshold will roll over to the next year making it easier to retain elite status. Domestically I find Delta’s planes to be top-notch, most with wi-fi and/or in-flight entertainment. There are often 10-50% American Express transfer promotions. Delta does not charge an extra fee for last minute award bookings.
Negatives: Three tier award chart means you generally pay more for awards if you redeem for Delta operated flights so think 40,000 for a domestic coach award or 200,000 for business class to Europe (partner flights are always at the low award level).  Delta also charges the same amount of miles for roundtrip as one-way, so it does not make sense to book one-way trips using Skymiles. Delta.com’s award engine is flat-out broken and most airline partner awards do not show online, so you need to use tools like Expertflyer to do your own research before calling in to book (and even then reps will often challenge you that award space is not available). Delta charges a hefty surcharge (roughly an extra $200) for award trips that begin in Europe. Delta charges $150 per ticket if you need to make any change at all on an award or to redeposit the miles. Also, Amex charges a .006 cent per point fee to transfer to Delta, so 100,000 will cost $60. There is no fee to transfer to British Airways. Delta also does not allow international first class redemptions- only up to business class.

That being said, here are my recommendations based on where you want to travel:

Domestic US/Canada: British Airways. Since they are a Oneworld partner, you can redeem miles on American Airlines flights and in my opinion, American has the most domestic award availability at the low mileage levels. BA also lets you do one-way awards (even on partner airlines like American) so you can mix and match classes of service.

Europe: Delta. Delta only charges 100,000 miles for low awards to Europe vs 100,00-120,000 on British Airways based on what region your destination is in. With Delta you have more partner options (which always price at the low award levels) and the taxes are exponentially cheaper on awards and you can combine multiple partners on a trip, so if you use your stopover and open-jaw wisely you can cover a lot of ground.

Asia: British Airways. One-partner BA awards to Asia from the US are only 50,000 miles in coach, 100,000 in business or 150,0000 in First and you have several choices including Cathay Pacific, JAL and American. If you use JAL or Cathay you can stop in either Tokyo or Hong Kong respectively before continuing on to another destination in Asia. Taxes are reasonable – usually around $300 or so, even for premium cabin awards.

Australia/Oceania: Delta. Delta’s partner V Australia has good availability, but you have to call and some agents still don’t know they are a partner. Even paying mid/high tier for a Delta award on LAX-SYD can be a better option than having no choices at all, which is often the case if you try to use British Airways miles on Qantas flights. Delta’s partner Air France also flies Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti and has surprisingly good availability. You can also route to Australia via Hawaii and fly Hawaiian airlines. Overall, I think there are more options to get down under on Delta than using BA miles since I find Qantas award availability to be scarce at best and flying BA through London will cost 280,000 in business class and take forever.

Latin/South America: British Airways. Since you can use miles to redeem on American or Lan, they have an extensive route network and good award availability. You can also maximize the stopovers with South America awards – only 40,000 miles for coach to anywhere in South America (including deep south like Buenos Aires and Easter Island). Remember, you can only use one airline on awards if you want to use the least amount of miles possible, so you can only fly LAN if you fly from their US gateways of New York JFK, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you don’t start your trip out of one of those cities, you will have to fly American Airlines, which has extensive service to the region.

Africa: Delta. Delta has lots of availability if you route through Paris (even to Johannesburg) or Amsterdam. Kenya Airways is also a partner, so you can get to more cities in Africa than flying British Airways and taxes and fees are drastically lower. I once booked clients from Toronto to Nairobi on British Airways in first class and taxes/fees were $1,300 per ticket!

India: Delta. British Airways arguably has more availability, though fees/surcharges can be ludicrous. American does fly ORD-DEL, but finding award space on that route is like finding a needle in a haystack, however it can be done and the fees are reasonable. AA to Delhi will cost 80/160/240k miles in coach/business/first. Flying BA through London will cost 90/180/270 for coach/business/first and a ton in taxes. will cost you. Delta no longer flies nonstop to BOM, but they do have options with via Amsterdam and Paris with KLM and Air France. They also partner with Jet on the JFK-BRU-BOM route, though that availability is scarce (you have to call Delta to check it). Delta will cost 80,000 miles in coach or 120,000 business class.

I know there will be a lot of exceptions to these recommendations, so feel free to share your thoughts – especially if you think I’m wrong :-). Remember – Delta also throws in 25,000 elite miles, which in itself will get you Silver Medallion status until February 2013, so if you are torn between the two, that could be a deciding factor on which is more valuable to you. While Silver elite status is the lowest tier, it will still get you free priority/exit row seats, occasional domestic first class upgrades, free checked bags and overall better customer service. Definitely something to consider as long as you are aware you will probably have to work a little harder to book a low level Delta award.

So what are your thoughts on which transfer option is better?

Some related reading to brush up on both programs:
British Airways: General tipsPost 1 – Booking BA Awards, Post 2 – Booking Partner Awards, Post 3 – Oneworld Alliance, Post 4 – Taxes and Fees, Post 5 – Household Accounts, Post 6 – Companion Ticket, Post 7 – Using ExpertFlyer for Partner Award Availability, Post 8 – The Art of the Stopover, Post 9 – Leveraging Miles and Cash Redemptions, and Post 10 – Using Qantas.com to Find Oneworld Award Availability.

Delta: Delta.com Quirks and How to Work Around Them, 10 Tips on Using Delta SkyMiles, Maximizing Stopovers, Transfers and Open Jaw Ticketing on Delta Awards

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