Manufacturing Delta Diamond, retrospective

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A few years ago Delta introduced an excellent new choice benefit for top tier Diamond members: 4 Global Upgrade Certificates that can be applied to almost any economy fare in order to upgrade to business class.  I first wrote about this benefit in the post “Why Delta’s great new Choice Benefits irk me.”  My problem at that time was that I had previously developed a solid plan for alternating years manufacturing Platinum status for my wife and I through credit card spend.  By timing the spend just so, it would be possible to keep both of us at Platinum status almost all of the time.

Now, though, I wanted to get my wife to Diamond status.  She flies regularly to Europe for work and would benefit greatly from those upgrade certificates.

Delta Diamond

Platinum status requires 75,000 MQMs (Medallion Qualifying Miles) per year, whereas Diamond status requires 125,000 MQMs.  That’s a huge difference.  Before Global Upgrade Certificates, I didn’t believe that the difference in benefits justified striving for Diamond status.  The new benefit changed my mind.

So, I threw out the old plan and set about manufacturing Diamond status for my wife, and Platinum status for me, every year.

How is this possible?

For an overview of how it’s possible to manufacture Delta elite status through credit card spend, please see: How to manufacture Delta elite status.

What does it cost and what do we get?

Most manufactured spend options have fees involved (gift card fees, bill processing fees, etc.).  In my case, I don’t mind paying higher fees if it keeps my life simple.  For example, I’ll happily pay 1.87% for the privilege of using my credit card to pay federal taxes.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that I average 2% in fees.  In reality, I average much less, but after factoring in my time and any driving required, that estimate might not be not too far off.

Platinum Status Cost

Platinum status requires 75K MQMs per year.  Let’s assume, though, that I fly at least 25K MQMs per year so that I only have to manufacture 50K MQMs for myself.  In that case, I need to do the following:

  • Delta Reserve Card: Spend $60K, get 30K MQMs (+ 90K redeemable miles)
  • Delta Platinum Card: Spend $50K, get 20K MQMs (+ 70K redeemable miles)
  • Total: Spend $110K, get 50K MQMs (+ 160K redeemable miles)

So, I need to spend a total of $110K on my Delta cards in order to keep myself at Platinum status.  If we assume that my manufactured spend costs are 2%, then we can say that it costs $2,200 to keep Platinum status.  That seems like a lot, but remember that I also earn a total of 160,000 redeemable miles from that spend.  Even if I used those miles at 1 cent a piece to pay for flights (which is different from redeeming for awards), I would get $1,600 in flights from those miles.  In reality, I’ve received far better value to-date.

Diamond Status Cost:

Diamond status requires 125K MQMs per year.  Let’s assume that my wife flies at least 25K MQMs per year so that I only have to manufacture 100K MQMs for her.  In that case, I need to manufacture exactly double the amount required for Platinum, above.  In other words, at 2%, it costs $4,400 to manufacture the 100K MQMs needed to get my wife to Diamond status.  In return, we earn 320,000 redeemable miles.

One way to look at this is that, based on the above calculations, we buy Delta miles for 1.375 cents each, and we’re granted high level elite status as a bonus for buying so many miles.

Credit card annual fees:

I purposely didn’t include the credit card annual fees in the above calculations.  Each Reserve card has a $450 annual fee and each Platinum card has a $195 fee.  The Platinum card offers a domestic economy companion certificate each year, and the Reserve card offers a domestic first class companion certificate each year (along with SkyClub access and other benefits).  Depending upon how the companion certificates are used, they can fully or partially make up for the cards’ annual fees.

I’ve loved using these certificates for times when award prices and paid prices are very high.  I especially have loved using the Reserve card companion tickets in cases where economy ticket prices are very high and first class tickets are only marginally higher.  In those cases, it’s great to be able to book two of us into first class for the price of one.

Recently, though, I’ve struggled to use the certificates.  They are limited to certain fare classes and while that hasn’t been a problem for me in the past, I seem to have encountered several situations recently where those fare classes weren’t available.  I think it’s too soon to declare this a trend, but if it continues I’ll have to rethink the value I assign to these certificates.

Is manufacturing Diamond and Platinum worth the cost and effort?

Each year, my wife has been able to successfully redeem her global upgrade certificates for lie flat business class seats.  This year, she has already used all four certificates for two trips.  For the first trip, both the outbound upgrade and the return upgrade were waitlisted.  That is, they didn’t clear at the time of booking.  However, about two weeks later, both upgrades cleared.  For the second trip, both upgrades cleared at booking.

Regional Upgrade Certificates (available to both Platinums and Diamonds) have been valuable too.  They were hit or miss in the beginning, but my recent experience has been better.  Even though they don’t always work to get me into first class, my (and my wife’s) success rate has been pretty good this year.  And, when the certificates haven’t cleared, they have reliably moved me to the top of the upgrade list for upgrades that clear at the gate.

Our earned miles have proven to be valuable too.  My son and I tend to accompany my wife on at least one European trip each year.  For the two of us, I like to use miles to book directly into business class whenever possible.  Normally, the cheapest Delta rate for round trip business class to Europe is 125,000 miles.  For an upcoming summer trip, though, we were able to cancel our 125K awards (for free, thanks to my status) and rebook for 105K thanks to a Delta award sale.  That particular flight would have cost $1,557 in economy or $5,372 in business class.  Compared to the business class fare, we got 5.1 cents per mile value from our miles.  Even compared to the economy price, the value comes to 1.48 cents per mile, which isn’t bad.

Closer to home, we often use miles to book domestic flights.  I don’t know if I’ve just been very lucky, but I’ve frequently found saver level fares for the exact flights I’ve wanted.  For these flights the per mile value I’ve observed is usually around 1.5 cents, which is much less than the value we get from international business class.  However, as I’ve written many times in the past, I highly value the fact that these award flights are fully refundable until 72 hours before the flight due to our high level elite status.  I frequently book awards just in case we want to use them.  If we decide not to use the awards, that’s no problem – we just cancel and get our miles back.

Definitely not for everyone

My wife and I have been very happy with the value we’ve received from manufacturing our way to high level Delta elite status.  That said, our unique circumstances have a lot to do with that.  For example:

  • We live near a Delta hub and fly Delta often.
  • My wife’s job has her flying to Europe twice a year, but they only cover economy fares.
  • We highly value the added comfort of lie-flat business class over economy.
  • Due to our travel style (and our location near a Delta hub), we’ve been able to get excellent value from our redeemable miles.
  • We highly value the ability to change and cancel awards for free.
  • We highly value the Delta Reserve card’s domestic first class companion certificates (when we’ve been able to use them).

If you don’t fit a similar profile, it’s very likely that doing this is not for you.

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