Are Delta credit cards worth it? Should you get one?
I think about this a lot. Especially since I am based out of a Delta Hub (Detroit), have flown well over 1 million miles with Delta and see friends, family and work associates using Delta Credit Cards all the time.
While I love the quality of Delta's planes and flight experience, I am not a big fan of their frequent flyer program (or at least what it has become over the last several years). Because of this, I have recently stayed away from their credit cards, even though I have owned and used them all (Gold, Platinum and Reserve) at one point over the last 10 years.
It has been awhile since I have really dug into the details of these cards, so I decided to give them another look and refresh my thoughts regarding the Delta SkyMiles credit cards.
The difference between “Owning” and “Using” a credit card:
Before we get into the details of the cards themselves, it's important to note that a key part of any travel rewards card strategy is to distinguish between “owning the card” for its benefits and “using the card” to earn miles, as these are two completely different things to be considered.
I have several travel credit cards that I have kept and “own” for the benefits they provide, but don’t actually “use” them for any of my spending. When it I need to actually use a card, there are several rewards cards that offer greater value and flexibility with my actual spending, so I use them instead.
With that in mind, let’s get on with the analysis and review…
How many credit cards does Delta offer?
Delta offers 4 Co-Branded Credit Cards, all of which are issued through American Express. The four cards are:
- Blue Delta SkyMiles Credit Card
- Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card
- Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express
While all four cards earn Delta SkyMiles, they are very different in terms of benefits and annual fees. The table below provides a high level summary of the features of each card:
Let’s take a look at each of these “Card Benefits”. I have broken them down into benefits that are actually worth something and benefits that are being positioned as benefits, but really aren’t very impressive. We will start with the latter.
Delta credit card benefits that really aren't much of a benefit:
Here are 5 features that Delta and American Express position as benefits of the SkyMiles credit cards, that really don't add much value.
1. 20% Savings on In-Flight Purchases:
Seriously? I can’t believe they even spin this as a benefit. 20% off a $8 snack box or a $7 drink? In total you may save a couple of bucks over the course of a year with this benefit.
2. Discounted Sky Club Access:
Free Sky Club access would definitely be a benefit. However, Sky Club access that is discounted to $29 per person, and capped at 3 people is not a great deal. Plus, even though the pictures on their website look beautiful and the clubs are positioned as exclusive, Delta Sky Club’s are generally overcrowded and the food is pretty weak. I would rather take that $29 per person and spend it at a nice airport restaurant. With all of the airport renovations going on lately, any airport that is large enough to have a Sky Club most likely has updated restaurants and bars. As someone who flies out of Detroit, I’ll take the restaurants and bars in the concourse over what you offered in a Sky Club any day!
3. Bonus Spending Categories:
The cards offer 2 miles on Delta purchases and 1 mile on everything else. This is not great at all! If you are looking to earn SkyMiles with a credit card, you can earn more Delta SkyMiles by using American Express Credit Cards that earn Membership Rewards points. Membership Rewards points immediately transfer to Delta at a 1:1 ratio and they have drastically better bonus categories than what the Delta cards offer, allowing you to rack up Delta points faster on Membership Rewards cards than on Delta co-branded cards. A great example is the Amex Gold card that offers 4x Membership Rewards points on Dining and Supermarkets, plus 3x points when you purchase flights from Delta.
4. No Foreign Transaction Fees:
There was a time when this was a unique benefit, but today, a large majority of travel related credit cards have this feature. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very good feature, and will save travelers 3% on all charges when traveling internationally, but its nothing unique to the Delta cards you can’t get elsewhere.
5. Priority Boarding:
Delta Credit Card holders receive Priority 1 boarding. This does give anyone without status a slight edge when fighting for overhead bin space on full flights, so there is some value. But you don't go straight to the front of the line. Most likely you will just be moving up 1 spot, from Zone 2 to Zone 1. If you bought a basic economy or reduced fare ticket that has you boarding in zone 3 or zone 4 you would definitely get on faster. However, if you bought one of those fares there is a good chance you will be stuck in a middle seat, so you probably don’t want to get on the plane any earlier than you have to.
The sequence of boarding is as follows:
- Pre-Boarding – customers needing assistance or additional boarding time – including families with car seats or strollers, plus active US Military
- Premium Boarding Zone – Delta One customers, First Class customers, Delta Premium Select customers, Diamond Medallion Members
- Sky Priority Boarding Zone – Gold and Platinum Medallion members (including Gold and Platinum member of other SkyTeam airlines such as Air France, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic), Delta Comfort Plus customers,
- Zone 1 – Silver Medallion members and Delta credit card holders
- Zone 2 – Main Cabin customers
- Zone 3 – Main Cabin customers booked in T, X or V Fares
- Zone 4 – Basic Economy Passengers (E Fares)
Delta credit card benefits that actually are a benefit:
Unlike the previous 5 benefits, these next 5 actually have the potential to deliver enough value that it is worth having the card.
1. Sign up Bonus / Welcome Offer
The Delta credit card sign up bonuses are pretty good. You can’t go wrong with a big chunk of miles hitting your account at once and the minimum spend requirements are not bad to achieve this bonus. They do occasionally offer limited time, increased bonus offers. Pay attention, if you see a limited increased sign up offer, you may want to jump on it.
I always like cards that offer the first year fee waived (like the Delta Gold Card), which essentially gives you a one year free trial of the card + the sign up bonus.
2. First Checked Bag Free:
This is definitely one of the big perks of any co-branded airline credit card. With the exception of Southwest, all major airlines are charging non-elite members to check bags, and Delta is no exception.
If you are traveling with a family of 4, these baggage fees can add up in a hurry! At $60 per bag round trip, you are looking at $240 just to have each family member check a bag.
If you don't have elite status with Delta and live near a Delta hub or fly Delta with any regularity, this feature alone will justify having one of the cards, as it will cover up to 9 passengers traveling on the same reservation. Note – I did not say it will justify “using” the card, but it definitely justifies “owning” it for this benefit alone (more on that later).
3. Annual Mile Boost / Bonus MQM’s:
The annual mile boost and bonus MQM features are only available on the Delta Platinum and Delta Reserve Cards. The MQM’s can come in handy when you are going to fall just short of Gold status or higher with Delta, but you have to put quite a bit of spend on the card to earn the bonus MQM’s, so you are going to really need to think this through. Specifically, because the MQM’s are not worth anything unless they will get you to Gold or higher.
I have spent some years as a lowly Silver Elite and it really gives you nothing other than the free checked bag and some preferred seat selection options. If 10,000 MQM's will bump you from Silver to Gold it is definitely a very good benefit, as there is a big difference between being a Delta Gold vs. Silver elite member.
4. Companion Certificate:
This is another feature that is only available with the Delta Platinum and Reserve cards and can be quite valuable if the airfare codes line up with your travel plans. However, you have to be careful with this one and understand how it works or you could end up very disappointed. The 3 most important things to be aware of are:
- 12 Month Waiting Period – The companion certificate is awarded every year you renew the card. This means that if you are just now signing up for the card, don’t plan on having this certificate available for another 12 months and another annual fee. You will get a certificate every year you renew, just not during the first 12 months of owning the card.
- Based on Flights within the 48 contiguous United States – flights to Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico or International locations will not qualify for the companion certificate. That said, if you are a resident of Hawaii, Alaska or Puerto Rico you can qualify to fly to and from the 48 states, but you have to be a resident with that address listed on your SkyMiles account.
- Airfare Code Restrictions – This is very important to be aware of. This companion certification is not available for all flights in the US. It only applies to certain fare codes. To be fair, these codes will cover a large number of flights available, just don’t bank on getting to use the certificate for a flight to Florida over Christmas or Spring Break.
Here is the language from American Express and Delta regarding the companion tickets:
Tickets are only available in:
- A and I classes of service for First Class travel,
- only available in W class for Delta Comfort+ travel,
- and only available in L, U, T, X, V classes of service for Main Cabin travel
Companion certificate cannot be combined with another offer or discount including, but not limited to, web fares, sale fares and eCoupons. Primary ticket and Companion ticket must be purchased with your Delta Reserve or Platinum Credit Card.
Both passengers must be booked on the same flights and dates, at the same time. Travel for Companion certificate must be booked and completed by the date on the front of certificate. Validity is not based on the calendar year.
5. Complimentary Sky Club Access:
This feature in only available with the Delta Reserve Card. If you fly a lot for business, this can be a nice feature. However, the biggest downside is that it is only valid for one person, so if you are traveling with your wife, family or a business associate you are going to have to pay for them to get into the club, which is not worth the added fees for what you get.
Conclusion: Should you get a Delta SkyMiles Card?
Now that we have gone through all the features and benefits of the card, hopefully you have a better understanding of which features do and don’t make sense for you.
In case you need some guidance, here is my personal recommendation.
First and foremost, make sure you understand the difference between “using” these cards to earn SkyMiles vs. “owning” the card for the benefits. These cards are definitely not the best cards for earning SkyMiles so I would not “use” them at all, with the exception of spending enough to get the initial welcome bonus and putting a couple of charges a year on them to stay active. The only other exception is if your spending will get you gold status or higher and you are a frequent Delta flyer (this will apply to very few people).
If you want to actually earn SkyMiles, you are much better off with an American Express Membership Rewards card that has better bonus categories. The Membership Rewards points immediately transfer at a 1:1 ratio to Delta SkyMiles or can be transferred to other airline programs (if you aren’t able to fly Delta). In particular, I prefer the Amex Gold card which offers 4X points on all charges at restaurants and Supermarkets, plus 3x on airline purchases booked directly with the airline.
Here is a quick summary of the SkyMiles you would earn using a Delta Credit Card vs. the American Express Gold Credit Card:
- Delta Credit Cards – Earn 2x on purchases made direct with Delta. Earn 1x on all other purchases.
- Amex Gold Card – Earn 3x on purchases made direct with Delta as well as 3x on purchases made direct with any other airline. Earn 4x on spending at supermarkets and 4x on spending at restaurants. Earn 1x on all other purchases.
If you are just trying to get a card that earns the most Delta SkyMiles, this example makes it pretty clear that the Delta cards are not the best for earning SkyMiles.
Who should have a Delta SkyMiles credit card?
That said, there are still many good reasons to “own” these cards and just keep them for the features and benefits, so here is a quick summary of who should own each card:
- Delta Gold Card – Get the Gold card if you don’t have Delta Elite status, need to check a bags when you travel, and fly Delta more than once a year. Keep it to save on baggage fees. Only use it for a couple of small transactions a year to keep it active. Do not use for ongoing spending.
- Delta Platinum Card – Get the Platinum card if you think you can use the companion ticket every year for non-peak travel periods in the US. Only use the card for spending if you think the bonus MQM’s will be needed at year end to move you to Gold Elite status or higher. Otherwise, just a couple of transactions to keep it active. Do not use for ongoing spending.
- Delta Reserve Card – If you are a frequent business traveler that will regularly use the Delta Sky Club (alone) as well as the annual companion certificate. Only use it for the same reason you would use the Platinum card – if the MQM's get you to gold status or higher.
Hopefully this summary of the Delta Credit Cards was eye-opening for you. The key with any travel rewards credit card is understanding when, if and how you should use them.
While we are on the topic of maximizing your travel earning from your existing spending patterns….
If you are a business traveler, you should read about the perfect business traveler credit card strategy to make sure you are getting the most out of your existing spending patterns.