Every airline has an affiliated credit card that lets you earn frequent flyer miles for everyday purchases. And each one has their own special promotions and bonuses, so if you’re lucky, your favorite carrier and your most common purchases match up for the best deals.
While these cards and programs have been around for years, an emerging trend involves banks and airlines teaming up to offer innovative rewards that go beyond mere miles. The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, for example, entices members by offering non-mileage benefits that can earn you some major money, if you fly Delta frequently enough.
- Earn SkyMiles. Like virtually all airline-affiliated credit cards, you will earn one mile for every dollar you spend on most purchases. You’ll also earn two miles for all purchases with Delta.
- Priority Boarding and On-board Savings. Cardholders get priority boarding privileges as well as a 20% discount on in-flight food, beverages, and entertainment purchases.
- Bonus Miles. As a new cardholder, you’ll receive 30,000 bonus miles when you spend $500 on the card in the first three months. This is good for a free flight.
- Annual Fee of $95. The fee is waived for your first year.
- Free Checked Bags. A credit card that comes with a bag fee waiver is one of the key strategies for avoiding checked baggage fees. When you purchase your tickets using the Gold SkyMiles card, you and up to nine other people traveling with you can check your first bags for free. Whether your family is packing skis or you’re organizing a group vacation to the tropics, this feature can save you hundreds of dollars.
- Useful Companion Certificates. When you renew your card each year, you will receive a $99 domestic companion certificate. There are many offers out there for companion tickets, but while most of them are filled with restrictions that render them useless, the ones that Delta offer are fully transferable and you can easily redeem them online for tickets on any flight.
- Poor SkyMiles Award Availability. Delta has moved to a three-tier system of pricing award seats. In doing so, they devalued their SkyMiles program by severely limiting award availability at its lowest tier. Although they frequently advertise that 30,000 SkyMiles is enough for a domestic award seat, finding a seat at that rate is extremely difficult.
- Pay with Miles Program is of Low Value. It’s great to have the option to cut your ticket price by redeeming leftover miles before they expire. But this program offers a poor rate of return on your rewards and is burdened by several important restrictions. When paying with miles, your miles are only worth one cent each toward your airfare purchase. Other cards such as the Capital One Venture Rewards card offer twice that. Furthermore, if you choose to pay part of your fare with miles, then even the part you pay for with cash won’t earn additional miles, and you won’t be allowed to upgrade. If you redeem a small amount of miles for an expensive ticket, it can even cost you more miles than it saves you!
- Unjustified Transaction Fees. Though there’s no real justification for a 2.7% fee on foreign transactions, American Express gets away with it because people continue to pay it. Amex has dropped this fee on their Platinum Card, but regrettably, they still charge it on their traveler-focused Delta cards.
- Annual Fee. Even for a rewards card, $95 is a steep annual fee. Thankfully, American Express waives the fee for the first year, and if you utilize the companion certificate, you’ll still come out ahead in subsequent years.
Airline-affiliated rewards cards look like great deals, since you have the potential to avoid fees, get free trips, and upgrade frequently. But when you look behind the promotional language, you realize you may not have access to all the deals you thought you’d get. Restrictions get in the way of some of the major benefits, and in the end the free stuff ends up costing you a lot of money.
In the case of the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express card, Delta has gone beyond the standard mileage formula with this rewards card by offering a free checked bag for each passenger you are traveling with. The bonus miles and the companion certificate go a long way toward justifying the now ubiquitous annual fee. At the same time, it can be difficult to utilize your SkyMiles to redeem awards at a reasonable rate.
If you’re a frequent Delta traveler, you’re likely to see the benefits outweigh the negatives with this card, and it will be a useful tool in your miles-accruing arsenal. But if you’re an occasional flyer and you just want a rewards card, make sure you read the fine print and compare some other flight rewards programs. The Delta Gold American Express is a good starting point, especially if you check bags when you fly, but you need to be sure you can justify even the annual fee and international transaction fees.
Are you a Delta SkyMiles cardholder? What benefits have you taken advantage of, and what problems have gotten in your way?