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How my 3 Delta American Express cards changed the way I travel

Feb. 06, 2020
12 min read
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For the past two decades, I've been active in the "hobby" of collecting points and miles to make travel cheaper and more luxurious.

OK — it's really part hobby and part obsession, complete with spreadsheets to track my account balances, progress toward elite status and all my free hotel night or flight companion certificates. With 19 credit cards — yes I know it's not normal — there are tons of perks to look after.

Cocktail hour conversations often turn into mini lessons about how to maximize credit card spend and advice about what new cards to get. My top suggestions (depending on the person) are often The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Chase Sapphire Reserve or — for those starting out in the hobby — the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Up until this point, no one is typically shocked by my advice.

Then I start talking about my Delta American Express cards — all three of them.

Delta's SkyMiles program has taken a beating for some insane premium cabin award ticket prices — think 465,000 miles for a one-way flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg in Delta One (that's Delta's version of the fancy seats). But the program does have some really good sweet spots. Delta has had some great domestic economy sales — including ones for 9,000 SkyMiles roundtrip to places you actually want to vacation (like the Caribbean). But even when it's not time for a beach vacation, we've used our SkyMiles to fly my in-laws from Florida to visit us and the grandkids in New York.

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There is unquestionably value to be found in the Delta SkyMiles program, but you might be surprised at just how much power the Delta Amex cards themselves have to make your Delta flying experience better — and cheaper.

Fast-track to elite status

The greatest value in the Delta Amex cards (for me) is the ability to charge my way to Delta Medallion elite status. This is one of the unique features that, of the big three legacy U.S. airlines, only Delta has. Other airline credit cards can help get you closer to elite status. But only Delta lets big spenders charge their way to airline elite status without ever setting foot on a plane. (Frontier and JetBlue also let you earn top-tier via credit card spend.)

For those who aren't as obsessed with Delta elite status as I am, you earn SkyMiles elite status by accumulating a combination of Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) or Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs), typically through flying. (You also need to spend a certain amount of money, but more on that later.) If you get 25,000 MQMs or 30 MQSs in a calendar year, you hit Silver Medallion status; the requirements for higher tiers are 50,000 MQMs/60 MQSs for Gold Medallion, 75,000/100 for Platinum Medallion and 125,000/140 for top-tier Diamond Medallion.

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Related: Guide to Delta SkyMiles elite status

Flyers typically earn 1 MQM for each mile flown on Delta, with a 50% bonus for tickets purchased in premium cabins. However, with the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, I earn 15,000 MQMs for every $30,000 in spending each calendar year, up to a total of 60,000 MQMs for spending $120,000.

To put this in perspective, earning 15,000 MQMs by traveling would require flying round-trip between New York and San Francisco three times in coach.

Also, by putting at least $25,000 on the card, Delta flyers are exempt from the airline's spending requirements for elite status up through Platinum Medallion. Low-tier Silver Medallion status would normally require a traveler to accumulate 3,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) each year. That's $3,000 on airfare, before taxes and fees — in addition to all the miles (or segments) you need to fly. For Platinum status, the spending figure jumps to $9,000.

To be exempt from the spending requirement for Diamond status, one would need to spend $250,000 on one of the Delta American Express cards. That's pretty tough for most folks to do, but you can likely envision a small business owner easily hitting that target.

Here's where it gets interesting: A big-spending, small business owner could earn 60,000 MQMs for putting $120,000 on their Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card. If they also had the personal Reserve card and spent $120,000 on that, they would get another 60,000 MQMs. That means they would almost be at Diamond status without ever stepping foot on an airplane. (Of course, what good is status if you don't actually plan to fly, but you get the idea.)

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

The consumer Delta Reserve card is currently offering 50,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first six months of account opening. The business Delta Reserve card is offering 60,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first three months of account opening.

Application links: Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card

Believe it or not, this can get even more lucrative. If somebody also had the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, they could earn even more MQMs with spending on the card. Those cardholders can earn 10,000 bonus MQMs after spending $25,000 on the card in a calendar year, and then another 10,000 MQMs after reaching $50,000 in spending in a calendar year. That card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 50,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first six months of account opening.

So why does this all matter?

Being a top-tier Delta Diamond member means higher chances of being upgraded on your flights plus plenty of other perks and waived fees. There's complimentary CLEAR membership, an expedited airport-security program that continues to expand. At the time of writing, it's available at over 30 airports and 20 additional event venues. These flyers also get three Choice Benefits (on top of the one you earn when reaching the Platinum Medallion requirements). Options for Diamond travelers include an individual Sky Club membership, upgrade certificates (including Global Upgrade Certificates), 25,000 bonus miles or a gift of Gold Medallion status to a friend or family member.

Lounge access

Some folks, like TPG's Zach Griff, skip the airport lounge and rush right to their gate.

I'm not one of them.

New York traffic can be unpredictable, and I enjoy sitting in the Delta Sky Club, typing away on my laptop and occasionally looking out the window to plane spot.

The Delta Sky Club PHX.(Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

My Reserve card offers an individual Sky Club membership, and as of Jan. 30, 2020, the card now comes with complimentary access to American Express Centurion Lounges when flying Delta with a ticket purchased on the card (up to two guests may also enter for a fee of $50 each). There are already Centurion Lounges in airports such as New York-LaGuardia (LGA), Houston (IAH), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Miami (MIA), Las Vegas (LAS), San Francisco (SFO) and more. But it gets better, as more are on the way. I often fly out of Charlotte (CLT) for work travel and can't wait for the new Centurion Lounge to open there this year.

But what really excites me about the recent changes to the Reserve cards is the ability to now get two free guest passes to the Sky Club for each Reserve card. Since I have both the personal and small business Reserve card, that means I can guest my daughter into the lounge for free four times a year. (My wife has her own Sky Club access when flying Delta via The Platinum Card® from American Express.)

When traveling with kids, lounges are a great escape. There are plenty of snacks, free drinks and sometimes special perks. For instance, the Sky Club in Palm Beach International Airport has a cart with ice cream sandwiches and other frozen treats.

Related: Best airport lounges for kids in the U.S.

Companion tickets

Here's where I start to truly justify the annual fees for my three Delta cards. That amounts to $250 for the Platinum SkyMiles card (see rates and fees), $550 for the personal Reserve card (see rates and fees) and another $550 for the business Reserve card (see rates and fees).

My family of three likes to travel — a lot.

Not all of my trips involve slime, but ... some do (Photo by Scott Mayerowitz / The Points Guy)

Some trips are big international journeys where we redeem miles for lie-flat seats in business class, but many others are short domestic hops or close-in international trips, typically in coach. That's where my annual Delta companion tickets come in handy.

The Delta companion ticket award you receive by renewing your Platinum Delta Amex each year is valid in the Delta economy L, U, T, X and V fare classes. This excludes Delta’s basic economy fares (E class) and some higher coach fare classes. In my experience, this means that you can use the Delta companion ticket on a wide variety of dates and routes, but certainly not on every single flight.

The companion certificate on the Delta Reserve Amex is valid in all those economy fare classes listed above as well as in I and Z (first class) and W (Comfort+).

I plan out my family vacations months in advance and have never had a problem using them to get a free ticket — often worth hundreds of dollars.

Related: Airline credit cards that come with annual companion vouchers

Delta Premium Select cabin on the Airbus A350-900 (Photo by Nick Ellis / The Points Guy)

Earn Status while using miles

Getting 1 cent per redeemed Delta mile isn't the best redemption, but if you are sitting on a ton of Delta miles, it is an option — one that lets you travel for free and still earn those valuable MQMs.

I don't suggest this to everybody but the option is, well, another option. And I'm all for having many choices when redeeming miles.

Delta cardholders can take $50 off the price of a Delta ticket for 5,000 miles, in increments of 5,000. So a $280 ticket would cost either 25,000 miles and $30 or 30,000 miles. I would not suggest the latter since you are losing out on $20 worth of miles.

Really, the only reason to ever do this is if you are sitting on a stockpile of miles and want to still earn MQMs on an essentially free ticket. Sometimes, we do irrational things for elite status.

Related: How to redeem Delta SkyMiles

Bottom line

I have three Delta Amex cards because it makes it easier for me to earn valuable Delta Diamond status without doing mileage runs. On top of that, my Delta Amex cards give me Delta Sky Club access when flying Delta plus four Delta Sky Club guest passes. I also have three Delta companion tickets at my disposal every year.

Naturally, not everyone needs three Delta cards (or 19 credit cards in general), but having at least one Delta credit card can make your flying experience on Delta more comfortable and rewarding.

Need more details? Here are some tips for choosing the best Delta card for you.

For rates and fees of the Delta Platinum Amex, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Amex, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Business Amex, please click here.

Featured image by Alberto Riva
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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