Why (and how) I earned a million Delta SkyMiles in just 6 months
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As a small-business owner, I’m fortunate to be able to earn plenty of points and miles by charging business expenses on credit cards. When I have time to sit down and really strategize, I can occasionally use that spending power to achieve elite status or earn bonuses that might otherwise be difficult to hit.
In 2021, I made the decision to try to attain Delta Diamond Medallion elite status by taking advantage of some pandemic-related earning opportunities. At the time I decided to go for it, my SkyMiles balance was less than 10,000 miles — and just under a year later, I have more than 1 million SkyMiles in my account.
The pandemic turned travel on its head in so many ways. For a lot of road warriors like myself, work travel pretty much came to a complete halt. Airlines tried to encourage us to travel, slowly at first, and then at an accelerating pace. They extended elite status. They eliminated change and cancellation fees and handed bonuses out like trick-or-treat candy. Still, most of us sat at home waiting for travel to get a bit safer or for our employers to work out new work-travel policies.
While we were grounded, airlines and hotels huddled with their cobranded credit card partners to find ways to keep us spending on those credit cards.
One of those ideas, combined with another recent change, got my attention and caused a pretty significant shift in my spending habits. Without too much extra effort, and before I fully realized it, my Delta SkyMiles account hit a seven-figure balance. Here’s how I accomplished that.
How I even started considering Delta Diamond
It’s probably helpful to offer a brief summary of my pre-pandemic travel patterns.
While you’ll find me writing for TPG and podcasting about travel, I have a day job that requires me to be on the road a couple of weeks a month. My home airport is Washington-Dulles (IAD) and I typically fly over 100,000 miles per year, mostly on short domestic flights. In other words, I usually earn elite status the hard way: by sitting in coach on lots of unexciting flights.
United has been my primary carrier for the last seven or eight years due to the number and convenience of nonstop flights out of Dulles. As a result, I’ve had United Premier 1K elite status for a while now. Before that, I was a top-tier American Airlines Executive Platinum elite for almost a decade.
Fast-forward to earlier this year when Delta announced that they would now allow loyalty members to earn lifetime top-tier Diamond status. Sometimes the best ideas are born from unbelievable propositions. In this case, it was a fellow travel blogger writing about how to spend your way to the whopping 6 million Medallion Qualification Miles needed for lifetime Diamond status.
The article was, I think, written as a parody. I mean, who would really try to earn 6 million MQMs starting virtually from scratch? Hear me out before you decide I’m crazy when I meekly raise my hand!
But the fact of the matter is, if I rebound to my former travel habits and combine them with some unprecedented credit card-related bonus opportunities, the idea isn’t so far-fetched. There were also few other factors, mostly pandemic-related, that started my gears turning, and now I’m well on my way.
Delta and Amex turbocharged MQM earning with credit card spending
Delta and Amex announced a variety of unique earning opportunities during the pandemic. It started with a big welcome offer for the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, currently offering 80,000 bonus miles and 20,000 MQMs plus a $200 statement credit when you spend $5,000 on the card in the first three months. Offer expires 11/10/21.
Like the personal Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, the business version also offers a program called Status Boost, where you can earn 15,000 additional MQMs for each $30,000 you spend on the card, up to four times per calendar year. As a small-business owner, I have a lot of spending that goes on our corporate credit cards. Most of it is in categories that typically don’t earn a bonus, such as restaurant equipment. That meant I wasn’t leaving a ton of value on the table by moving some of our business spending to a Delta business Amex.
At 1.1 cents apiece, TPG’s own valuations have Delta SkyMiles trailing American Airlines AAdvantage and United MileagePlus by a bit, with a Delta SkyMiles mile worth just more than half a Chase Ultimate Rewards point. I’d be earning less valuable miles by opting for Delta, but I’d also be working my way to Delta Diamond status this year thanks to those MQM boosts.
We’ll cover more on that in a bit, but there’s one more opportunity for earning MQMs to point out. As a way to encourage folks to spend more on their Delta Amex cards during the pandemic, the Delta Reserve Amex cards (both personal and business) are offering an additional 25% MQM boost of 3,750 MQMs for every $30,000 spent on the card this year.
Another bonus of carrying the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Amex in particular is that, after you spend $150,000 on purchases with the card in a calendar year, you earn 1.5 miles per dollar on purchases after that for the rest of the year (bonus categories continue earning at their specific rates). Given the large number of purchases I make for business, and the high dollar amounts, hitting these figures was no problem, and I saw my earning take off to astronomical levels quickly (but more on that later).
That meant I could earn a total of 75,000 MQMs (enough for Platinum Medallion status on its own) toward Delta Diamond Medallion status by spending $120,000 on my new Delta Amex. However, I’d have to spend a total of $250,000 this calendar year if I wanted a waiver on the Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement for Diamond status. That’s a big number, but I actually decided it was worth putting the extra spending on the card to earn Diamond status via the MQM boosts and the MQD waiver.
More ways to earn MQMs and bonus miles
Delta didn’t stop at credit card promotions to encourage folks to travel. It also rolled out bonus mileage-earning opportunities on both paid and award tickets:
- Delta is offering up to 75% more MQMs, MQDs and MQSs (Medallion Qualification Segments) through the end of 2021. Travelers can earn a 50% bonus on all economy tickets and a 75% bonus on all premium-cabin fares.
- Delta is offering the same bonuses on all award tickets.
- Additionally, I learned from personal experience that I could earn the 75% bonus by purchasing an economy ticket and using miles to upgrade to first class on one of my flights.
With all of these earning opportunities and the fact that my work travel schedule began to pick up again, it was so much easier than I thought it would be to achieve Diamond Medallion status.
As I started piling up MQMs faster than I ever thought possible, I began to think about the possibility of locking up some sort of lifetime status. Between credit card spending and bonus miles on flights, I quickly got to 200,000 lifetime MQMs from virtually zero.
That’s a far cry from 6 million I’d need for lifetime Diamond. Lifetime Delta Silver status , which requires 1 million MQMs, really holds no interest for me. But I could easily see many of this year’s lucrative earning opportunities repeated in 2022. With two years of accelerated MQM earning I could make a lot of progress and possibly hit lifetime Gold at 2 million or even Platinum at 4 million eventually. That’ll give me plenty of time to decide if Delta really is the carrier I want to concentrate my work travel on in the future.
Flight schedules still aren’t geared towards business travel
Credit cards aren’t the only things that have seen drastic changes during the pandemic. Flight schedules were pared to almost nothing, then airlines ramped domestic schedules back up quickly.
However, since most of the folks traveling were leisure travelers, flight schedules reflected that reality. Destinations such as Florida and Cancun got additional lift while more traditional business routes stayed pretty scant.
Prior to the pandemic, United Airlines operated a nonstop flight from my home airport of Dulles to Las Vegas (LAS) that departed around 8:00 a.m. I could hop on that flight for a work trip (Vegas is a frequent destination of mine since our company owns a business there) and be on the ground before lunch. That meant almost a full workday.
Fast-forward to pandemic scheduling, and the first nonstop didn’t leave until after 10:00 a.m., arriving in the afternoon. That killed my productivity.
The same was true for flights to Reno (RNO), another frequent destination for me. In both instances, Delta offered earlier departures on connecting flights that got me to my destination much earlier in the day than my old United nonstop. That allowed me to make the most of my time away from my family. Whereas in a normal year I’d be all over nonstop flights for convenience, this year I’ve found myself on more connecting flights because they work better for my schedule, and that meant choosing Delta more often.
How I earned 1 million SkyMiles in roughly 6 months
With all of the extra earning opportunities in play, I quickly found myself sitting on just over 1 million SkyMiles — award miles that I’ll put toward upgrades and future travel, not MQMs that I’m accruing toward elite status.
Here’s approximately how my path to 1 million miles in under a year added up:
- 80,000-mile welcome offer on the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Amex.
- 60,000 miles from flying.
- 20,000 miles from 3x earning on Delta spending with the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Amex.
- 150,000 miles from 1x spending on work purchases.
- 700,000 miles from earning 1.5x for spending over $150,000 on the Delta SkyMiles.
As you can see, my earning really took off after I hit that $150,000 mark. And yes, Delta is giving me a lot of miles for my spending loyalty. But in my opinion, both Delta and American Express got pretty much exactly what they wanted when I applied for the card.
They paid out a big, one-time welcome offer and got me hooked. I handed out a few cards to employees, and with all the supply chain and staffing issues our business has faced, I just left those credit cards in employees’ hands for a whole bunch of spending to get what they needed when they needed it.
The bump to 1.5 miles per dollar on spending after $150,000 in spending within a calendar year boosted my balance extremely quickly, and though I might still have been slightly better off accruing Chase points according to TPG’s valuations — in part because they are easier to use both with direct travel redemptions and by transferring to several different airline and hotel partners — I still think my rate of return was pretty excellent.
As an aside, if elite status isn’t as important to you and you make frequent larger purchases on a credit card, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express offers 1.5 points per dollar on any individual purchase of $5,000 or greater as well as on select U.S. business categories, on up to $2 million in total spending each calendar year (then 1x). That can also be a good way to leverage business spending for maximum return, along with earning a flexible currency for travel.
Is it worth it?
As long as Delta continues the trend of awarding MQMs on award flights, I can continue to make progress toward Diamond status again for 2023 by burning up my SkyMiles balance on award travel. Those MQMs will also help nudge me closer to lifetime Diamond status. That’s still a pretty unrealistic goal given how late in the game I’m starting, but plenty of unrealistic changes and possibilities popped during the pandemic.
While I may have “overspent” on the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Amex compared to the value I could have gotten by moving spending back to a Chase business card our business also holds, I have already been able to take advantage of the benefits of Delta Diamond status many times. For instance, I’ve been able to get Delta to move me to United on one trip when a Delta delay was going to cause me to miss my connecting flight. Those sorts of soft benefits are huge for me as a road warrior.
Plus, as a Diamond member, I also get to select Choice Benefits.
Sky Club access is already a benefit of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business American Express Card, so no need to tie up one of my choices with that. I’ve got my eye on the upgrade certificates for some potential international travel. And I think I’ll also select a $200 travel voucher. As a small-business owner, I also like the ability to gift one of my employees Gold status. Twenty-five thousand bonus miles isn’t a horrible choice either, especially if Delta continues to offer the ability to earn status through award flights.
Every business owner will have to make their own decision when it comes to earning miles or points versus taking cash back. I hope my experience outlines how you can leverage spending for your business to achieve elite status (and potentially lifetime status) along with a bunch of miles that you can give to employees or use for your own adventures.
With recent major changes at American Airlines, I think we’re seeing a bigger shift toward earning status through credit card spending. United Airlines now significantly trails Delta and American in this regard. Small-business owners should spend the time to evaluate what’s most important. Top-tier elite status is pretty easy to achieve under the current generous offerings.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
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