Addicted to Delta credit cards? Maybe it’s time for an intervention


Several years ago, I had to have a serious talk with my parents. As Atlanta based travelers, they were addicted to Delta Airlines and its SkyMiles credit cards. Delta runs a fine airline and it offers them non-stop flights to nearly anywhere, but I knew they could do better than using Delta credit cards.

What’s wrong with the Delta credit cards

Delta has a very close partnership with American Express, which offers several credit cards that allow you to earn SkyMiles. These can seem like decent cards, but they all offer only one mile per dollar spent on most purchases and double miles on Delta purchases.

But here’s the bigger problem: Delta no longer has an award chart, so you never know how much an award flight can or will cost. Every time you search for an award flight, you can be told that you’ll need a different number of SkyMiles to pay for it. Furthermore, Delta often requires far more miles for its award flights than other carriers, especially for the awards you want the most.

For example, Delta often asks for hundreds of thousands of SkyMiles for a business class seat to any of the overseas destinations it flies. And if you need to catch a last minute flight, then you can expect to pay far more SkyMiles than you would using miles from competing frequent flyer programs. This is why Delta SkyMiles have such a low value among award travel enthusiasts.

Chasing status

Another problem my parents had is that they were always chasing elite status with the Delta Medallion program. When you have the highest levels of elite status, such as Platinum or Diamond, you can receive some nice fee waivers and occasional upgrades to first class. But they were only able to reach the lower Silver or Gold status and were almost never upgraded to first class. Instead, they received priority boarding and a free checked bag.

To reach that level of status, they often had to pay more for their tickets than what other airlines were charging. They’d even look for ways to schedule a few extra trips towards the end of the year, just to ensure that they retained their status. Likewise, they would use the Platinum and Reserve SkyMiles credit cards that offered them the chance to earn some extra elite qualifying miles, while paying huge annual fees. All told, they were wasting hundreds of dollars a year to earn and maintain elites status that didn’t offer benefits worth nearly as much.

How the intervention went

First, I explained how much money they were wasting on Delta credit cards that offered inferior frequent flyer miles, but they were skeptical. I then laid out an alternative plan. One of them would apply for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards personal and business credit cards. Combined, this would offer them nearly enough bonus points to earn their vaunted companion pass.

This is Southwest’s version of elite status, and it allows them to add a designated companion to any reservation, including award flights. Essentially, it’s an unlimited buy-one-get-one free card. Combine that with the 110,000 points that they earned to get the companion pass, and they would both be traveling for free for some time.

Yet they continued to raise objections. What about the free checked bag they were getting with the Delta credit card and as Delta elites? I explained that Southwest offers everyone two free checked bags. What about the (occasional) upgrades to first first class they got from Delta? I explained that Southwest doesn’t offer first class, but it features more legroom in economy class than Delta. But what about priority boarding, they pleaded. I reiterated that they would be traveling for free, so who cares.

Ultimately, they relented and are now loyal Southwest travelers. They’ll occasionally use Delta or other airlines when the price and schedule suits them, but they are no longer blindly paying whatever Delta asks.


Other ways to break off your addiction to elite status

Delta’s not the only airline that flyers buy tickets from to chase elite status. Most airlines would love it if you preferred to overpay to earn status rather than shop around. But if you are paying for your own tickets, then you should consider yourself to be a free agent and always choose the airline that has the best price and service.

Another way to break your addiction is to look for alternatives to credit cards that only give you miles with a single airline. Credit cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, American Express Membership Rewards points, and Citi ThankYou points allow you to transfer your rewards to frequent flyer miles with multiple carriers. You can redeem these rewards for statement credits towards travel reservations, or transfer them to miles with one of nine airline partners.

Another reason for some to avoid airline cards

Airline credit cards, like all other reward credit cards, are best used by those who will always avoid interest charges by paying their statement balances in full. If you carry debt or make late payments, then credit cards just aren’t for you. At the very least, you might want to find a credit card that offers 0% APR for balance transfers, just to help you to pay off your debt.

Bottom line

Addiction is a tough thing to overcome, no matter what kind it is. By taking a close look at how you use travel reward credit cards and what the alternatives are, you can break your bad habits and start earning the best possible rewards from your credit cards.

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