Why Delta’s great new Choice Benefits irk me

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Recently, Delta announced a few significant (and mostly positive) changes to their elite Medallion program.  For full coverage, please see these posts:

Here is a brief summary of changes beginning March 1, 2014:

Good changes

  • Regional Upgrade certificates: Platinum Medallions will have a new Choice Benefit of 4 Regional Upgrade certificates that can be applied on any paid flight that qualifies for free Medallion upgrades.  Certificates may be used only to upgrade the certificate owner and/or one companion on the same itinerary.  Unlike the old Systemwide Upgrade certificates, which are going away, these certificates are valid on any fare other than deeply discounted e-class fares.
  • Global Upgrade certificates:  Diamond Medallions will have a new Choice Benefit of 4 Global Upgrade certificates (or 8 Regional Certificates).  Global Upgrades can be used on almost any Delta run flight to anywhere in the world as long as upgrade space is available. Certificates may be used only to upgrade the certificate owner and/or one companion on the same itinerary.  Unlike the old Systemwide Upgrade certificates, which are going away, these certificates are valid on any fare other than deeply discounted e-class fares.
  • Upgradeable flights to Hawaii: Flights between the west coast and Hawaii will now qualify for free Medallion upgrades.  Flights between Atlanta and Hawaii are specifically excluded.

Bad changes

  • Transcons not upgradeable: Fights between JFK and the west coast (specifically Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle) will not be eligible for free Medallion upgrades, nor will they be upgradeable with Regional Upgrade certificates (but they will be upgradeable with Global Upgrade certificates).
  • One less month: Medallion elite status currently lasts for the rest of the year in which your status level is acquired, plus all of the next year, plus January and February of the year after that.  As of 2016, the end date of your elite status (assuming you did not re-qualify) will be end of January rather than end of February.

Platinum Benefits

I recently decided that my strategy for maintaining Delta elite status would be to alternate each year between my wife and I earning Platinum status [see “Mileage Running from Home II (now with an exciting 2 player option!)“].  The Platinum benefit that I find most valuable is the ability to make free changes to awards.  This way, I can book awards prospectively when award space is available and make changes for free as needed.  One example where this was helpful is when I wanted to book an award for my wife, son and I to Europe in business class.  At the time, I found two seats, but not three, at the 100K saver level (Note: the same saver award will cost 125K as of June 1 2014).  Because I knew that I could cancel that award for free if necessary, I went ahead and booked the award for my son and I.  I then checked back regularly to look for a single saver-level award seat for my wife.  Within a few days, the saver level award appeared and we were good to go.  If that seat hadn’t shown up, I could have cancelled the award and made other plans.

By alternating Platinum status between my wife and I, we can still maintain the ability to make free award changes as long as we’re careful about which account to use for booking awards.  And, if I can earn Platinum elite status (for myself or my wife) early each year, we will actually both have Platinum status most of the time.

The introduction of Regional Upgrade certificates makes this plan even better.  Regional Upgrade certificates are good for up to 1 year after they’re issued.  So, if I wait until my Platinum status year is almost over before requesting the certificates, I will be able to use those upgrades during the time that I am without status (well, I’ll probably have at least Silver status, but still…).  Only time will tell how widely available upgrades will be (best bet: not very), but even when the upgrades aren’t available, the certificates can be used to put you on a waitlist for upgrade space.  This way one would presumably get upgrade priority over elites hoping for complementary upgrades on the same flight.

If I expected to travel the excluded transcon routes, I would be pretty unhappy with the latest changes, but since I’m Detroit-based, I’m unlikely to fly the those routes in any case.  So, overall, I think that the Regional Upgrade Choice Benefit is a big win for Platinum elites like me (and my wife).  Of course, they’re not worth anything unless you actually use them, and they’re not transferable, so keep that in mind.

Diamond Benefits

As of March 1, 2014, Diamond Elites will have the option to get 4 Global Upgrade certificates as one of their Choice benefits.  These certificates are sweet in that you can use them to upgrade to business class from almost any coach fare on Delta operated flights (they are more restrictive on Air France and KLM operated flights). 

The new Global Upgrades are great for these situations:

  • For those pursuing renewal of elite status, Global Upgrades can be used to keep prices low for international trips while still earning MQMs, and still flying up-front.
  • For those travelling on business in coach, the certificates are a great option for improving your travel experience.
  • For those who want to travel international business class, but do not have enough miles to book straight-up awards, these certificates could be an excellent option.

Overall, I think that the option for Global Upgrades are a big win for Diamond Elites.  And, for the first time, I see a big benefit to achieving Diamond status over Platinum status.

Why the changes irk me

My wife flies to Europe for her work a few times each year, but she can only get reimbursed for flying coach.  This has made it nearly impossible for her to fly up-front.  Without Global Upgrade certificates, only insanely priced international coach tickets are upgradeable on Delta flights (via miles or with the old Systemwide Upgrade certificates).  American Airlines would be a great alternative since they allow upgrades to all fares, but since they have only a few regional flights out of Detroit, booking American Airlines means more layovers and worse travel times.

So, now we get to the dilemma.  I have a great plan for maintaining Platinum status, and the new Regional Upgrade certificates make the plan even better.  But now I want Diamond status!  My wife, especially, would benefit from Diamond status.  She could really use those Global Upgrade certificates!

Should I change my plans and try to work out a way to get my wife to Diamond status?  That’s a huge leap from Platinum as it requires an additional 50,000 MQMs per year.  My current plan is for my wife and I to each have a single Delta Reserve card and to run up $60K annual spend on each one.  I know that sounds like a huge amount of spend, but remember that Bluebird cards can be loaded up to $5000 per month, which conveniently works out to $60,000 per year.  With that much spend, we would earn 60,000 MQMs from those two credit cards, and each year we would alternate who gets all of those MQMs.  We can earn the extra 15K MQMs to achieve Platinum status by actual flying.

To get to Diamond status, the plan would have to change substantially.  One approach would be for my wife and I to each hold two Delta Reserve cards: one personal and one business.  If we then ran up $60,000 spend on all four cards, we would generate 120,000 MQMs, which is shy of the amount needed for Diamond status by just 5000 MQMs.  In theory that would work, but I don’t feel good about the idea of doubling our annual spend (and our credit card annual fees) just to get a few Global Upgrade certificates.

So, the reason the new Choice Benefits irk me is simply this: Delta has added a new carrot to entice me toward Diamond status.  I want it, but I’m simply not ready to go that far.  How about you?  If you’re a Delta flyer have the new benefits or upgrade rules changed your plans?

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