An analysis of the Delta Reserve credit card

Last revised: 4/1/2014

Delta Reserve Card

At first blush, you would have to be insane to sign up for this card.  It comes with a jaw dropping $450 annual fee which is not waived the first year!  However, if you look a bit closer, you just might be swayed.

What you get for the annual fee (just the highlights):

MQMs and bonus miles:

The current signup offer (as of 4/1/2014) is 10,000 MQMs (Delta Medallion Qualifying Miles) and 10,000 bonus miles (redeemable for travel) after your first purchase.  If we conservatively value the bonus miles at 1 penny each and since I’ve argued that the fair trading price for MQMs is about 3 cents each (see How much should you pay for elite qualifying miles), this signup bonus is worth at least $400 (but only if you seek elite status.  If you do not seek elite status the value is only about $100).

Sky Club Access:

Once you have this card, you and two guests can get into any Delta Sky Club (note: beginning May 2014, only the cardholder gets free access to the club).  A Delta Sky Club membership costs $450 for an individual membership (and $695 for Executive Membership which allows bringing in up to 2 guests for free).  Personally, I would never pay for that, though.  So, I would peg this benefit at about $150, but you should really judge for yourself how much it is worth to you.

Companion Certificate:

After the first year, when you renew the card, you receive a a free companion certificate.  This will allow you to essentially buy two tickets to and from anywhere in the continental US for the price of one.  Unlike the companion certificate that comes with the Delta Platinum card, this one allows purchasing first class tickets.  Note two big downsides: the companion does not earn miles or MQMs and you and your companion will not be eligible for upgrades.  Also, there are some fare class restrictions to these certificates but I have yet to have any problems redeeming them.  I like to use these certificates either on regional jets that don’t have first class or as a way to buy two first class tickets for the price of one.  Personally, I value this benefit at about $250.

Priority Upgrades

If you are on the upgrade list on a flight and other frequent fliers have the same status as you (e.g. Silver, Gold, Platinum, or Diamond) and they bought tickets in the same fare class as you, you will jump ahead of them because you hold this card.  This benefit is unlikely to help you very often, but if you fly a lot it will probably be the difference between first class and coach at least once a year.  I’ll call this one a $50 benefit (even though circumstances could make it worth much more).

Priority Boarding and Free Checked Bag

If you have elite status with Delta, these benefits won’t matter to you.  Otherwise, this is a pretty good perk.  Priority boarding will allow you to get on the plane and find overhead bin space for your carry-ons before the bins fill up.  The value of a free checked bag should be obvious.  If you don’t have elite status, I would estimate the value of this perk to be about $75 per year.

Total estimated benefits first year:

  • $600 for elites (MQMs and Miles $400 + SkyClub $150 + Priority Upgrades $50)
  • $625 for non-elites who will reach elite status (MQMs and Miles $400 + SkyClub $150 + Priority Boarding & Free checked bags $75)
  • $325 for non-elites who will not reach elite status (Miles $100 + SkyClub $150 + Priority Boarding & Free checked bags $75)

Total estimated benefits ongoing years:

  • $450 for elites (SkyClub $150 + Priority Upgrades $50 + Companion Ticket $250)
  • $475 for non-elites (SkyClub $150 + Priority Boarding & Free checked bags $75 + Companion Ticket $250)

So, as you can see, the card pretty much pays for itself with its benefits.  If you value the particular benefits listed above, you might want to seriously consider this card.

Benefits from Daily Spend

If you don’t spend a lot on this card, the benefits are minimal.  You will earn one Delta SkyMile per dollar on most purchases, and two Delta Skymiles per dollar on Delta purchases.  Compared to several other cards, this is pretty lame, in my opinion.  Where the card shines, though, is if you manage to put exactly $30K or $60K of spend on the card in a year:

Big Spend Benefits

Once you reach $30K in spend in a calendar year, you will be awarded with 15000 bonus miles and 15000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) which will help you get to the next level of elite status at Delta.  The same benefits kick in again at $60K of spend.  So, if you manage to put exactly $30K or $60K of spending on your card each year, you will earn 1.5 SkyMiles and .5 MQMs per dollar spent.  Let’s estimate the value of redeemable SkyMiles at 1 cent each and MQMs at 3 cents each.  This means that you would earn 1 * 1.5 + 3 * .5 = 3 cents of value per dollar spent on the card.  This is really an outstanding rate of return for non-category spend (some cards offer better rates of return for spend within categories such as gas stations, grocery stores, etc.).  The more highly you value elite qualifying miles (MQMs) and redeemable miles, the more attractive this option is likely to be to you.

Another very interesting aspect of the bonus MQMs earned with this card (but not with the Delta Platinum card) is that the MQMs are giftable.  This means that you can apply the MQMs to another person’s account to help them get to the next level of elite status.  There are many ways to take advantage of this.  For a few examples, please see: Mileage Running from Home II (now with an exciting 2 player option!)

My take

If you are a frequent Delta flyer and you value Sky Club access, this card is a good one to keep in your wallet or in a drawer.  If you are also a big spender, this card is a surprisingly strong contender.  In the past few years, I’ve used both this card and the Platinum version to rack up Medallion Qualifying Miles to earn high level Delta elite status.  For details, see: Mileage running, from home.

Note: If you’re interested in signing up for this card, you can find the best current offers here.


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  1. […] Originally Posted by InsUW2 Yes the SAN Sky Club is open when the SAN – ATL flights leave and they are open in ATL when I arrive. I have the Delta Platinum and Delta Business Platinum from AMEX so no need for another one. I have been stuck at BOS waiting for a flight for several hours too many times… For an extra $300 you can upgrade the DL Platinum to the DL Reserve card. Other perks that might sway you: http://boardingarea.com/freque…e-credit-card/ […]

Comments

  1. Rebuttal: :-)

    MQMs) Far easier to wait for an AMEX transfer bonus that gives you MQMs as part of the deal. These are (almost) predictably occurring twice a year.

    LOUNGE ACCESS) Sure, if you dont have AMEX plat or priority pass already, like most of us who read you already do…

    COMPANION TICKET) Dude. *AFTER* the first year is the killer, which means you have to invest another 450 to get it. Compare to Alaska BofA $100 matching certificate.

    DAILY SPEND: Hey, if you aren’t working on a sign-up bonus spend, you are doing something wrong! Thinking about daily spend is sooo “Level 1″, no? LOL!

    FINALLY, what about sign up miles? For 450, they dont toss anything in whatsoever??

  2. I was thinking the same thing as far as sign up bonus. After counting the value of the 10K MQMs from sign up and reducing it by the annual fee but you need to compare to the fair value of an alternative sign up bonus. This puts you back in the hole by $500 or so.

    • That’s true. This card cannot compete with others if your goal is to get signup bonuses. Instead, this is one to consider for spend benefits. The annual benefits just about break even with the annual fee. If you don’t highly value MQMs then there is no point.

  3. Yes, but you’re assigning a value to the MQMs so you can still do the math. Isn’t that point of using fair trading values? ;)

    A better way to look at this is the card has a sign up bonus worth $300. It’s a little low compared to typical value of $500+.

    It has an annual fee of $450, which is not paid for in the first year unless you want to count the value of the sign up bonus, but then you’re double counting.

    • HikerT: The way I look at is that the benefits pay for the annual fee (MQMs + Sky Club first year; Companion ticket + Sky Club ongoing years). In other words, I think of it as having a net zero signup bonus. So, I’m completely agreeing with you and bluecat in the assertion that, for credit card churning, this card is a loser. The value comes from spending $30K or $60K on the card and getting a better than average return for that spend. Also, I think that a lot of people would gladly pay more than 3 cents per mile for MQMs, which improves the value of the signup and the ongoing spend.

  4. Agreed, you would have to spend 60K on the card to make up for the lost sign up bonus. If you value skymiles at 1.3 and MQMs at 3.0 then you would get $1680 of value from 60K of spend. Compare to using a 2% cash back card where you would get $1200 cash back. Extra value is $480 which is about the value of a sign up bonus.

  5. I don’t consider the companion ticket to be an added benefit for this card. The Platinum AMEX provides the same companion ticket for $300 less in Annual Fee.

    So basically, you’re paying an extra $300 in Annual Fee for all the other stuff that you mention in the article. Also, the Plat AMEX gets you 10k MQM after 25k in annual spending), so the added benefit of the reserve card is that you get 5k MQM for 5k additional spending (1 cent/MQM added benefit over the Platinum card)

    • Steve: That’s all true. That’s why I have a Platinum Amex as well. The Platinum easily pays for itself (after the first year) with the companion ticket. The Reserve pays for itself if you value the other stuff (Sky Club, etc.). And, as you pointed out, the Reserve has a slightly better rate of return on high spend.

  6. I still think the entire notion of “everyday spend” is an order of magnitude more complex than “working towards sign on bonus”. If you don’t believe me, look at today’s Dan’s deal posting where you basically need to carry a huge cheatsheet with you to know which card to use for which purchase! (Not a bad idea for an iPhone app, btw!) All of that is way too complex for all but the most nerdy among us.

    SO..I contend that everyone should just *always* be working on a credit card signon bonus spend. If they have exhausted those, *then* they should consider whether or not a spend level bonus (like the BA Chase Visa) is worth it or just “default” to the Chase MR (or whatever) card.

    BUT…if someone wants to publish a “cheatsheet” app (that can be tailored), I would gladly pay $5 for it! :-)

    • I just reviewed HikerT’s analysis and realized that his calculation left out the 30K bonus miles you get with $60K of spend. With $60K spend, you would get a total of 90K redeemable miles and 30K MQMs. At 1.29 cents per redeemable mile, that is $1161 in value; and at 3 cents per MQM, that is $900 in value, for a total of $2061. Compared to $1200 you would get in cash back for that same amount of spend with a 2% cash back card, this card would give you $861 of value more!

  7. Personally, I find the companion ticket to be worth far more than $250. I usually try to use it for my spouse and I to do cross-country holiday travel, in which case it is worth more in the neighborhood of $500.

  8. I did an analysis of this card a while back. I carry it in my wallet.

    Two important factors that aren’t fully highlighted here are that the (a) companion ticket is good for both economy and first class (or domestic “business”) tickets and (b) ongoing mqm bonuses are enough to keep pax at FO level on delta, or for delta flyers, bump them up a medallion category in most casts.

    This card is the right card only for a small number of customers…but for those that it works for, it is very good.

    http://www.sitinfirst.com/2011/10/amex-delta-reserve-card-just-right-for-certain-customers/

  9. I’ll also add that redeeming the companion first class voucher has been extremely easy. It is capacity controlled, but not based on award seat availability – but rather based on A or D availability, which is much greater.

  10. Thanks, didn’t realize the companion ticket was valid for first class. Nice! I’m really tempted to get this card for the upgrade priority now that I’ll be traveling more.

  11. I realize this post is almost a year old now, but it is still quite relevant. I just booked a ticket with the companion pass. DTW-SAN-DTW in F for a little over $900. This was for travel Christmas week where coach is already $500+. I get the benefit of 150% mileage and I don’t have to worry about giving up my upgrade to my wife.

  12. Yes, a year old though very helpful as I’m losing Gold status next year (still waiting for more Amex MR transfers!) Just finished the 70K Delta Gold bonus deal so now need to comb the T&C with AmEx re: upgrading to Reserve (not sure upgrades receive the same benefits).

  13. What a perfectly timed post in that I’m reading it almost exactly a year later ;) I’m aiming to get 50K MQMs by this summer, but only have a few thousand in revenue flights booked. So, I’m looking at this card to get me 25K MQMs for the fee + $30K spend.

    I noticed in your valuation up top that you only valued the MQMs, and not the RDMs that “come with” the MQMs (my understanding is that the MQMs are ALSO RDMs).

    So a 10K MQM signup would be worth $429 (with RDMs worth 1.29 and MQMs worth 3.00 each). When I got the Plat DL Amex a while back, the 10K MQMs were also RDMs.

  14. American Express told me I can’t upgrade my Gold card (got the 70K deal) as its been less than a year and that if I apply for a new card, I won’t qualify for the initial 10K MQM bonus, which is a major bummer – anyone have experience with this? Maybe I should just go for it?

  15. brian johns: Your best bet is probably to sign up for the business version of the Reserve card. That way you’ll get the 10K MQM bonus since the business cards are independent from the personal ones.

  16. Thanks to Amex GC’s into Visa Gift GC’s into money orders into the bank into the funding card makes this – IMHO – easier than ever before to manufacture huge spend, I think I am going to jump in and get the biz and personal version of these cards to generate 80k MQM in the first year and I believe 140k RDM off of $120k spent. I fly Delta enough to justify going for the status but not so much I will actually get there by flying (I had Platinum for a year through a status match and it was very nice). What is really crazy is you can probably get from zero to plat in no more than a couple of months. Am I off base?

  17. MilesAbound: I agree. It is finally easy enough and cheap enough to generate large spend that this becomes a good solution for many more people than ever before. By the way, you asked in a separate post if I had a link to the card so that I can get the referral (which I appreciate!). Here’s what I wrote: I don’t have a direct link, but I’ll get credit if you use the following link, then click on the “Cards” tab at the top to find the Reserve card: http://track.linkoffers.net/a.aspx?foid=3142710&fot=9999&foc=1

  18. Thanks FM. I will use that trick link. And I just did an app-o-rama for Mrs Milesabound so whatever you get for the MB Amex, Chase Ink Bold and Barclays US links will be heading your way. The only thing to work out on all this is Amex gift card limits. I guess you could just do Visa gift cards direct from giftcard mall but doubling up the cashback makes the economics better.

  19. Being single, I have not found the companion certificate very useful for me personally but the way I use it is that I don’t have to be flying so I have used it twice to buy my daughter a ticket and then her boyfriend is free. That way they get to go two for the price of one. The one time I tried to use it in Nov. 2013 to go from BDL-SFO it turned out that the ticket to be paid for with the companion certificate cost way more than buying two tickets outright. Delta didn’t know why that would be but said it was a problem with Am Ex, not with Delta.

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