Delta mileage running: flying vs. spending

A few days ago a friend mentioned that he was a few thousand MQMs short of reaching Platinum status this year.  MQMs (Medallion Qualifying Miles) can be thought of as miles flown with the airline.  Platinum status (which is near top level) requires 75,000 MQMs per year.  My friend would be short that amount by just a little bit.

Another friend jumped in to say that he was about to do a mileage run that would earn about 5,000 MQMs for about $320.  A mileage run is where you fly just to earn miles and status.  This mileage run was a “same day turn”.  In other words, he would fly out to somewhere far away in the morning, and would return in the evening.

I’ve done some mileage running with same day turns in the past.  When doing them with friends, it can be a lot of fun.  When doing it alone — not so much.  It’s been a couple of years now since I’ve done anything like that.  I now earn my status almost entirely through credit card spend.  For details about how that works, please see my recent post: How to manufacture Delta elite status.

Delta Reserve to the Rescue

After hearing about this $320 mileage run, I quickly ran some numbers in my head.  My friend already has a Delta Reserve card, so he could spend $30K on the card to earn 15,000 MQMs.  That would be far more than he needs, but the extra MQMs would roll over into next year and so would not be wasted at all.  What would those 15,000 MQMs cost if he were to pay to complete that spend?  For the sake of argument, suppose he made very large bill payments through the Plastiq bill pay service (college tuition for his son, local real estate taxes, etc.).  Plastiq charges 2.5%.  And 2.5% of $30,000 is $750 (and this assumes the worst case: that he has to pay this fee for all $30K of his spend).  His cost per MQM via Plastiq bill payments would be $750 / 15,000 = 5 cents per MQM.  Via flying with that $320 mileage run, he would pay $320 / 5,000 = 6.4 cents per MQM.

In the above example, mileage running through spend is much cheaper per MQM than mileage running in the air.  And it’s much, much easier.

Delta Platinum alternative

What if my friend had the Delta Platinum card instead of the Delta Reserve?  In that case, he could earn 10,000 MQMs with $25K spend.  Via the Plastiq 2.5% spend method, he would pay $625 in fees for 10K MQMs.  In other words, he would pay 6.25 cents per MQM.  That’s still better than the in-air mileage run.

What about MQDs (Medallion Qualifying Dollars)?

One advantage of the in-air mileage run is that it also earns MQDs which are also needed to earn status.  But, with $25K in spend on Delta credit cards, the MQD requirement is waived entirely for all status levels up to Platinum.

If he wanted to earn Diamond status, things would be different.  The best mileage runs via air, especially when booked through certain partners like AeroMexico, earn lots of MQDs.  To get to Diamond status, you need to earn either $15,000 in MQDs or spend $250,000 on Delta credit cards (it’s OK if the spend is spread across multiple cards).

In-air mileage running does therefore have an advantage over credit card spend.  With in-air mileage running, you can accumulate the needed MQDs piecemeal as you go.  With credit card spend, it’s all or nothing: you have to spend the full $250K in order to get that Diamond MQD waiver (unless Delta is nice enough to waive the requirement for you).

What about redeemable miles earned, credit card annual fees, etc.?

There’s no doubt that my analysis above was quite superficial.  It left out considerations such as whether or not it’s worth paying the annual fee on Delta credit cards in order to earn status this way.  It also left out an analysis of the value of redeemable miles earned with each approach.

So, I created a spreadsheet to run the numbers.  To compare credit card spend to mileage running, I took the details of an excellent mileage run from Rene’s Points (here).  And, to estimate redeemable miles earned, I assumed, best case, that the person flying already has Diamond status (which gives them a 120% bonus on AeroMexico).  This shows the in-air mileage run in the best possible light.

Then, I generated multiple spend scenarios with and without the card annual fees.  In many cases, cardholders may value the card’s perks (such as the annual companion ticket) high enough to justify the annual fee entirely and so should not consider the annual fee in this analysis.  In other cases, people may get these cards only to earn status and so the annual fee should be considered in full.

Let’s look at the results…

Delta mileage running: flying vs. spending at 2.5% (Plastiq bill payment)

Above is the “Plastiq bill payment” scenario.  At the top you’ll see two key parameters.  The first should be thought of as the amount, in cents, you would be willing to pay for Delta SkyMiles if they were for sale.  I always get more than 1 cent per point value, so I’d happily pay 1 penny each.  The next parameter is how much it costs you to spend the required amount on your credit cards.  In this case, I set it to 2.5% since that’s Plastiq’s standard fee.

In the table, you’ll see a number of scenarios.  The top scenario is an example in-air mileage run.  The next scenario is spending $30K on a Delta Reserve card.  The next one is the same but also accounts for the card’s annual fee.  In each case I input the first three columns of data: overall cost, redeemable skymiles earned, and MQMs earned.

The next two columns show the cost per redeemable SkyMile of this scenario if you don’t consider MQMs, and the cost of MQMs if you don’t consider the earned SkyMiles.

The final two columns show the real results.  The second to last column shows the adjusted cost of the mileage run after subtracting out the value of the earned redeemable SkyMiles.  And the final column shows the adjusted cost per MQM.

In that final column, you can see the following results regarding the Delta Reserve card:

  • Spending $30K on the Delta Reserve card is much better than a great mileage run if you don’t factor in the card’s annual fee (2 cents per MQM vs. 3.9), but it’s considerably worse if you do factor in that fee (5 cents per MQM vs 3.9).
  • Even considering the annual fee, spending $60K on the Delta Reserve card is better than a great mileage run (3.5 cents per MQM vs. 3.9).

The Delta Platinum card shows the same pattern of results:

  • Spending $25K on the Delta Platinum card is much better than a great mileage run if you don’t factor in the card’s annual fee (2.8 cents per MQM vs. 3.9), but it’s worse if you do factor in that fee (4.7 cents per MQM vs 3.9).
  • Even considering the annual fee, spending $50K on the Delta Platinum card is slightly better than a great mileage run (3.7 cents per MQM vs. 3.9)

And the Diamond run $250K scenarios show the following results:

  • Without considering annual fees, the card-spend approach is much better (2.8 cents per MQM vs 3.9).
  • After considering annual fees, the two approaches are practically a tie: 4 cents per MQM via card spend vs. 3.9 cents per MQM via mileage running.

Delta mileage running: flying vs. spending at 1.89% (pay federal taxes)

Another option for increasing credit card spend is to pay federal taxes via credit card.  Whether you have very high estimated taxes or end of year taxes, or you’re comfortable giving the IRS a loan, it’s possible to pay federal taxes with a credit card for as little as 1.87%.  See: Complete Guide to Plastiq Bill Payments.

Simply by changing the parameter titled “Cost of Spend”, I was able to view the results of paying for spend in this way.  With this version of the analysis, you can see that all of the credit card spend scenarios are better than the in-air mileage run.  If you manufacture your way to $250K in spend via this method, you’ll have bought MQMs at only 2.5 cents each (after accounting for the value of SkyMiles earned).  Now that’s a terrific mileage run.

Conclusion

In most cases, mileage running through Delta credit card spend is economically a better way to go vs. mileage running via flying.  In some cases, credit card spend is much better.  And the lower the cost of your spend, the better it gets.

If you enjoy flying around the world for no purpose other than to earn status, then by all means keep it up.  But, if you’re like me and you’d rather earn status the easy way so that you can enjoy that status when flying for the purpose of getting somewhere, then consider the credit card approach.  Keep in mind, though, that Delta status is only worthwhile if you make good use of it.  Do you fly Delta often?  Then it might be worth it for you.  For more on this topic, see: How to manufacture Delta elite status.

Resources

These posts might be helpful:

And here’s more info about each of the Delta credit cards that can be used to earn MQMs (click into any of these for even more info):

Delta Reserve Business Credit Card from American Express

Annual Fee: $450

Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Earning rate: 2X Delta

Big spend bonus: Earn bonus miles and MQMs with high spend

Noteworthy perks: Miles Boost®: Earn 15K bonus miles and MQMs (towards elite status) after $30K spend and another 15K bonus miles and MQMs after $60K spend per calendar year. Terms apply. ⚬
Free domestic economy or first class companion certificate after first year ⚬ SkyClub access ⚬ Priority boarding ⚬ free checked bags. Terms and limitations apply. See Rates & Fees

See also: An Analysis of the Delta Reserve Credit Card

Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express

Annual Fee: $450

Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Earning rate: 2X Delta

Big spend bonus: Earn 15K bonus miles and MQMs (towards elite status) after $30K spend and another 15K bonus miles and MQMs after $60K spend per calendar year. Terms apply.

Noteworthy perks: Free domestic economy or first class companion certificate after first year. SkyClub access. Priority boarding and free checked bags. Terms and Restrictions Apply. See Rates & Fees

See also: An Analysis of the Delta Reserve Credit Card

Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express

Annual Fee: $195

Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Earning rate: 2X Delta

Big spend bonus: Earn bonus miles and MQMs with high spend

Noteworthy perks: Miles Boost®: Earn 15K bonus miles and MQMs (towards elite status) after $30K spend and another 15K bonus miles and MQMs after $60K spend per calendar year. Terms apply. ⚬ Free domestic economy companion certificate after first year. Priority boarding and free checked bags. Terms and Limitations Apply. See Rates & Fees

See also: An Analysis of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card

Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Annual Fee: $195

Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Earning rate: 2X Delta

Big spend bonus: Earn 10K bonus miles and MQMs (towards elite status) after $25K spend and another 10K bonus miles and MQMs after $50K spend per calendar year. Terms apply.

Noteworthy perks: Free domestic economy companion certificate after first year ⚬ Priority boarding ⚬ Free checked bags See Rates & Fees

See also: An Analysis of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

More articles by Greg The Frequent Miler »

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