It Looks Like I’m Chasing Delta Diamond Status Without Getting On An Airplane

It’s been another one of those whirlwind months where nothing happens the way I planned it.  Plenty to catch you folks up on in the near future, but until then we’ve had something of an interesting development in the elite status world.  First, a bit of background.

My Road Warrior History, In Brief

I started traveling for work back in 2000, with a lull for a few years, then in earnest starting in 2007.  Since then, I regularly clocked 100,000 miles on airplanes each and every year, pandemic years excluded.  I started out as a loyal American Airlines customer.  Over the course of my first busy year I earned my way up to American Airlines’ highest status level, Executive Platinum. For years, that was my entire orbit.  I rarely got on a plane for a domestic flight unless it was on American Airlines.

Somewhere in the 2011-2012 timeframe, I decided to give United Airlines a try.  Some colleagues kept scolding me that I should be flying them out of Dulles, since it is a hub for the airline.  I quickly earned 1K status, United’s top level (other than the invitation only Global Services status).

For a few years I managed to hold on to both Executive Platinum and 1K status.  After some network shifts and the merger between American Airlines and US Airways, I dropped Executive Platinum and focused solely on 1K.  It wasn’t because I was happier on United.  They did save me time getting where I was going.  And, American eliminated some key routes (such as between my home airport of Washington-Dulles and Chicago) that made it much tougher for me to build efficient connecting flights.

The past 8 years or so have been a steady diet of United Airlines nonstop routes.  The service has deteriorated, but the main goal has been to get to my destination and home as quickly as possible.

Enter Delta

The pandemic has really shaken things up. Many routes I used to rely on don’t exist right now.  They may return by the end of the year, but not when I start traveling (hopefully within the next 30 days now that I’m fully vaccinated).  On key routes that I’ll be flying, the times are nowhere near optimal for business travel.  When the first nonstop flight to a destination leaves at 11am, that’s a killer for productivity.  As you can see, one of my primary markets for business travel, Las Vegas, is not currently optimized for road warriors.

I’ve always wondered if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, er, airport.  That wasn’t really the case in my switch to United from American, but maybe all the positive things I heard from colleagues about Delta would be more to my liking.  Normally, I wouldn’t even consider a change like this. Starting with no Delta status and working my way up to Delta Diamond isn’t particularly appealing, especially because it requires even more qualifying miles (125,000 MQMs) than American or United for top-tier status.  And, in an era where fares are still pretty low it’ll take me quite a while to hit the spending threshold for Diamond.  But, that’s where credit cards enter the picture.  Delta is uniquely as the only one of the Big 3 airlines to allow someone to earn their top-tier status without even stepping foot on a plane.  That won’t be me, I do intend to fly.  But, I anticipate having a huge head start on status before I do.  Here’s what I have mapped out.

Earning Delta Diamond Status With (Mostly) Credit Card Spend

As I mentioned, Delta stands alone when it comes to a big leg up on elite status through credit card spending.  American and United do offer some small shortcuts.  But, Delta’s path is much more aggressive.  They have three credit cards specifically targeted towards small business owners.  Of those, two give you the ability to accelerate your progress towards elite status.

Now, I don’t earn any affiliate income from credit card referrals, and I rarely apply for a credit card just to get the sign-up bonus.  The move I’m contemplating is because it serves me best for my circumstances.  I’m sharing the story as it may help others with their decisions.

I applied for the Delta Reserve Business American Express Card.  That one gave me the clearest path to elite status, especially with a feature this year called “Status Boost”.  Here’s how I’m using this credit card to boost my way up the status tiers quickly:

  • I’ll earn 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after spending $5,000 on the card.
  • I’ll earn an additional 18,750 MQMs after spend $30,000 on the card.  I can do this four times for a total of 75,000 MQMs.
  • Diamond status requires $250,000 in spending on a Delta credit card to waive the Medallion Qualification Dollars requirement. That’s achievable with business expenses through the end of the year.

The spending above would still leave me 30,000 MQMs from Diamond status.  With a regular business travel schedule for the rest of the yea that won’t be hard to achieve, depending on schedules.  If United optimizes their nonstop schedules on certain routes, I could certainly see this whole thing going up in smoke.  At the end of the day, spending time with my family is still the most important thing to me.  That means getting where I need to go (and back) as efficiently as possible.

Why Delta Diamond?

I am genuinely curious to see how Delta treats a Diamond member based out of Washington-Dulles.  On its face, that seems like a pretty crazy reason to go through all of this.  As I mentioned previously, I’ve been a top-tier elite member with American Airlines and United Airlines for multiple years in the past two decades.  Delta Diamond status offers some intriguing perks, including Choice Benefits.  Delta allows Diamond members to choose three Choice Benefits like club access, global and regional upgrades or a $200 travel gift card.

Delta Diamond potentially also offers greater flexibility to me when it comes to things like complimentary upgrades.  My home airport of Washington-Dulles is a United Airlines hub.  There are plenty of government contractors and other high-spend travelers that have United’s invite-only Global Services status that I’ll likely never earn.  That makes complimentary upgrades challenging.  As well, the draw down in international service at Dulles makes them less appealing for me from an award travel standpoint.  Lastly, the elimination of pretty much all change fees on tickets eliminates one of the biggest benefits of elite status for me, making me more of a free agent.

Why Not Delta Diamond?

There are some easy reasons not to bother with Delta Diamond status.  For starters, Delta doesn’t maintain award charts.  And, they’ve made some pretty substantial negative changes to the price for award redemptions in the past handful of months.  Delta will likely never offer as many nonstop flights out of my home airport as United.  In order to maintain the value of Delta Diamond, I’d have to bet on a subpar United schedule combined with an increase in value of Delta SkyMiles or decrease in value of United MileagePlus miles.

The Final Two Pennies

Intellectually, I find it interesting that Delta makes it so much easier to achieve elite status through just spending on credit cards.  It’s a stark contrast from American Airlines and United Airlines where there’s no path at all to achieve top-tier status with just credit card spending.  In an industry where competitors copy each other more than they innovate, it’s very interesting to me to see such a different philosophy on what sort of customer deserves to be awarded top-tier elite status.

I’ve heard many positive things about Delta Diamond status from loyal Delta customers.  To some degree, I though it was a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, similar to Marriott elite members who ignore glaring issues with that program.  There’s no question the Delta SkyMiles program has been less favorable to their members than other airline loyalty programs when it comes to the value of the miles they award customers.

Are the soft benefits of Diamond status enough to outweigh that?  It’s hard to say.  Maybe a year away from flying has made me forget parts of the United program that excite me.  After spending years on connecting flights with American Airlines, I made the change to United primarily because of efficiency.

When the dust settles, the question I’ll be trying to answer is one I’ve considered before.  Does better treatment from an airline outweigh more favorable schedules from another when it comes to being a road warrior?

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15 Comments

  1. You answered your own question. Sitting in a nice lounge is not why you fly. Its all about getting there and back as quick as possible, so you can be with your family. I could sit for a couple hours in a Port A Jon, if it got me back to my family quicker.

    1. Tommy, great visual on the port-a-potty! Oddly, right now United can’t get me there quicker. That will change, but maybe not at the right times. If the kids are back to in-person school, flight times are a bit more flexible. But, we’ll see. I don’t think there’s any way I’d fly enough to earn Delta Diamond that way. But, if credit card spend gets me most of the way there, it could work out long-term. United has never been my 100% nonstop carrier. I fly about 25% connecting flights, which I have more flexibility on where I book those.

  2. What if – and hear me out on this – the elite status matters a whole lot less than just taking the flights that make more sense?? 😉

    Does getting to board early really matter that much?

    1. You may be on to something here…..:P
      In this case, Delta actually makes by far the most sense for my next 2 trips. United’s schedule times are not geared to a business traveler like me out of IAD for now. I suspect that will shift, I’m just not sure over what period of time.

      You know me well enough to know I don’t really care about boarding early. The elimination of change fees (for now) definitely removes one of the most valuable benefits of elite status for me.

      I guess what it comes to do is will I have enough connecting flights overall (that I could book with either Delta or United) plus enough credit card spending that doesn’t earn bonuses elsewhere to maintain Delta Diamond in 2022? And, the follow-on question of is Delta Diamond rewarding enough that I wouldn’t be better just putting that spending on a Chase Ultimate Rewards card or an American Express Membership Rewards card?

  3. I find it odd that you mention Choice benefits and the ability to have club access considering that DL lacks a lounge at IAD. Furthermore, in the case of irrops, you won’t have any DL club lounge attendant to take care of you. Also, I obviously don’t know your most common domestic destinations, but for your LAS example, ATL is a detour south and JFK has air traffic control issues (at least pre-COVID). Even your argument on getting more DL upgrades by flying out of a non-Hub is suspect given how stingier DL is with free domestic upgrades vs UA (with their clearly stated intent of trying to stop offering free upgrades). In short, I’m just not understanding your strategy, and that doesn’t even take into account that UA miles are 10 times more useful than DL miles.

    1. Daniel, I don’t visit a lounge at my home airport. I get there in time to board my flight. IRROPS is certainly a valid point on club access, though not a meaningful one, IMO. I’m connecting to LAS on this flight because it actually gets me there earlier in the day than United’s nonstop option. Longer flight time, for sure. But, I get a full day of work on the DL option, where United drops me there early afternoon on a nonstop. I could connect on UA as well, but once I start connecting United no longer has an advantage.

      UA upgrades out of IAD pre-pandemic were tough to come by as a 1K. That’s just fact. I don’t expect that to get materially better post-pandemic. Years of flying UA have proven to me that, at least out of IAD, if I want the upgrade, I should buy it. Delta may prove no different, but I don’t agree UA will be better at this out of IAD. And, IAD-LAS/LAS-IAD are typically flights where people will purchase F.

      DL has connecting points in DTW and MSP that are helpful for my Midwest travel. I don’t specifically have anything against ORD, but I prefer connecting in the other two, all things considered.

      At the end of the day, a decent chunk of my travel has been connecting flights and those can go on pretty much any airline that has the right schedule. I’m giving this a try to see how it works out. It’s unlikely that Delta will be my primary carrier, but I like the aspect of having Diamond status for a year or two to give me a better perspective for people who read the blog and listen to my podcast as well. It comes without a big price to pay, really just the difference in the value of the miles. I’m not going to connect on Delta when a United nonstop is effectively timed for business travel.

  4. Being based out of SFO, United or American are the logical choices for me. Frustrated by United (after 2 million miles flown), I tried all the logical alternatives. I settled on Continental and switched just in time to wind up back in United’s fold. After a while, again frustration with United caused me to reconsider and I made the permanent change to Delta. Inconvenient out of SFO but well worth the extra bother. It’s just a better airline in every category that counts for me. I find the 125,000 mile criteria a plus because there are relatively fewer elite flyers out there. The treatment from Diamond customer service is superb. And my friends get to call me Diamond Dave.

    1. Diamond Dave, your experience with United mirrors mine. I’ve enjoyed my American experience. But, without a Midwest connection (AA hasn’t flown IAD-ORD in years) I can’t build time-efficient connecting itineraries. Delta has been impressive on my first trip out of the gate, while United was largely what I expected. Hard to be disappointed when you go in with low expectations. We’ll see if I stick with Delta for connecting flights. United is bringing back better timed flights on some of my normal routes later this year, which will be the real test for me.

  5. What do you really spend on $250K on credit card without churning like others? I want to know and learn. Pay for rents or taxes?

    1. Shannon, I don’t churn. I literally bought a couple Vanilla Reloads a million years ago so I understood how to discuss it with people, but churning isn’t my thing. It’s all business spending. We have a couple of commercial landlords who accept a credit card without charging a fee and we’re able to buy many of our supplies with a credit card. I’m fortunate to have that much spending to take advantage of.

  6. An interesting take on things. The fact that you can spend what for most people is a vast amount of money on your cards certainly changes things a bit. Really, there are a couple of salient points IMO:

    Service from IAD – Is Delta really going to get you where you’re going without connecting? You know the old joke about Delta’s motto being that people flying from New York to Chicago should get to visit Atlanta as well (or something like that)? Well United should be offering scads more nonstop service. Even if that’s not true immediately it should be accurate for the future.

    Awards – You pointed out how Delta has nothing remotely resembling an award chart. Forgetting for a moment the times where a Delta award price is so astronomical that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry, fact is that awards on Delta generally cost vastly more than competitors. If you earn enough miles on different programs to fly where you want on awards anyway, this becomes a moot point but I’ve never known anyone personally who felt that they had too many miles.

    1. Christian, a decent chunk of my flying is connecting to smaller cities (less than half, but still significant). Delta has ATL, DTW and MSP as jumping off points for those trips where United really only has ORD for decent connecting flow. So, I think Delta can work for a decent amount of connecting flights. Still unsure if I’ll take a Delta connection instead of a United nonstop long term. Right now it’s easy because United’s schedule isn’t optimized for business travel.

      I don’t know how to feel about the award side of the experiment. I’m willing to take the hit on $250K in un-bonused spending to try out Diamond for 18 months. But, if I don’t see the value in the upgrade certs and the award chart then I’m much more likely to roll back to Platinum in 2023. Only time will tell on that one.

  7. Don’t forget that Delta recently announced status accelerators for the remainder of 2021 travel, including allowing you to earn status on award tickets for this year. That’s a pretty big game changer, IMO, especially if you are able to buy up to Comfort+ or First Class.

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