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.
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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