So where does that leave co-branded airline cards?
In this review we will examine one of the longest-standing suites of airline rewards cards — the Delta Skymiles Cards from American Express. American Express is a CreditCardForum advertising partner.
Is it still worth getting a co-branded airline credit card, such as a Delta Airlines American Express?
Despite some drawbacks, the suite of Delta SkyMiles credit cards has a lot of benefits for certain travelers:
Advantage #1: The first checked bag is free
Perhaps the most popular feature of the Delta American Express cards (and most airline cards) is the benefit of checking a bag for free. Eight other passengers traveling on your reservation get the first bag free as well. Here’s how much you can save, assuming each passenger has one checked bag (which would normally cost $25 each):
- Scenario #1: You take three round-trip flights per year by yourself. Your savings would be $150.
- Scenario #2: You take only one round-trip flight per year, but your two kids and spouse come along with you (it’s a family vacation). Your savings would be $200.
- Scenario #3: You take four round-trip flights per year with your spouse. Your savings would be $400.
You won’t get this perk from any of the generic non-branded travel credit cards because they’re not officially affiliated with any airline. So if you often travel with a group, and often fly Delta, this benefit could make the Delta SkyMiles cards worth getting. Even occasional travelers will benefit.
You can use the free checked luggage perk an unlimited number of times, so for the frequent Delta flier, the card is a must-have.
Advantage #2: Priority boarding
Getting on the plane first won’t get you to the destination any faster or save you money, but it will get you overhead bin space, which has become harder to get, thanks to all the travelers trying to avoid checked-bag fees. With all tiers of the AmEx Delta Airlines cards (Gold, Platinum and Reserve), you get Zone 1 priority boarding. And just like the checked bag benefit, this applies to you and up to eight other people under your reservation.
Once again, this is another benefit the generic travel cards can’t offer, since they aren’t affiliated with a specific carrier.
Advantage #3: SkyMiles can fetch a good value if you use them strategically
With the non-branded travel cards, each point or “mile” you earn is typically worth exactly 1 cent when redeemed. For example, a $587 flight would cost you 58,700 points or “miles.” Meanwhile with SkyMiles, you can redeem for flights at pre-set increments, regardless of how much the cash price is for the ticket. Delta stirred up controversy by removing its redemption charts from its website last year (Feb. 2015), requiring consumers to search for rewards by travel date. For reference purposes only, here’s the economy-class redemption chart as of January 2015:
Although this chart is more than a year old, the relevant message is that the value of your points will depend on how you redeem them. It’s possible to snag a ticket for a good redemption value (more than 1 cent each). Unfortunately, the flip side may also be true: Finding a flight for the lowest redemption tier can be difficult, especially if you have inflexible travel dates or are traveling during peak times. In such cases, your SkyMiles can be worth much less than 1 cent each.
Advantage #4: Savings of 20 percent on eligible in-flight purchases
One of the drags of flying nowadays is that you have to pay for almost everything during the flight. Complimentary food service on domestic flights is all but extinct, you have to pay for alcoholic beverages, and you’ll be charged if you want to enjoy the in-flight entertainment.
Being a cardholder can take some of the sting out of this charge-for-everything business model, as you get an automatic 20 percent discount (in the form of a statement credit) on food purchases, alcoholic beverages and in-flight entertainment (TV, movies, video games). Unfortunately, the discount doesn’t apply to in-flight Wi-Fi because that service offered through a third party, Gogo (not Delta).
Advantage #5: Discounted or complimentary access to Sky Club
With the Delta Gold and Delta Platinum, you get Sky Club access at a reduced rate. Normally the cost for a pay-as-you-go pass (one-day pass) is $59. But if you have either of these cards, your price is only $29. Up to two guests can get in with you at the discounted rate.
Delta Reserve cardmembers, meanwhile, always get complimentary Sky Club access when flying with the airline. Guests can enter at a discounted rate of $29 per person.
What are the drawbacks?
While the Delta SkyMiles American Express cards make sense for many fliers, there are some drawbacks to consider:
Disadvantage #1: Benefits/award flights are only for Delta
No surprise here – you can redeem only for flights on Delta and its partner airlines. Obviously this is to be expected with an airline-branded card. But, if you’re looking for maximum flexibility (or don’t live in a Delta hub), it can be a disadvantage.
Disadvantage #2: They all have an annual fee
Fees are never fun. Here are the annual fees that come with these cards:
- Delta Gold – $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95
- Delta Platinum – $195 (this is NOT waived the first year)
- Delta Reserve – $450 (this is NOT waived the first year)
The fee on the Delta Gold is on par with cards from other airlines that provide similar perks. Whether the Platinum’s higher fee is worthwhile for you will depend on whether you use its yearly companion ticket benefit. This perk gets you a domestic economy ticket each year upon card renewal — you still have to pay taxes and fees, though, which can be up to $75 per ticket. The Reserve is definitely pricey and will probably make sense only for the hardcore Delta flyers who will use the card full-time and can regularly take advantage of both its companion ticket benefit (which works for first class, too) and the complimentary lounge access.
Verdict for 2016?
After accounting for the advantages and disadvantages, the American Express Delta Gold and Platinum can make a lot of sense for Delta fliers. Even if you don’t want to use it for your everyday card, having one in your wallet for the benefits can save you money every year.
This review was written or last updated July 8, 2016