Wise Flyer

Wise Flyer

Question: I noted with interest the item in May’s Inside Flyer that Hilton now offers a Visa card, in addition to its AmEx Optima. Before I apply for that, are you aware of any immediate plans by Delta Air Lines to offer a MasterCard/Visa card in addition to its AmEx which I already carry? Thanks very much. Jan Sagett

WiseFlyer: A question I’ve often asked myself and, while I heard a rumor a few years back, there is no indication that SkyMiles will offer anything but its own American Express card anytime soon. It’s a rich contract and Delta is the only airline with which American Express has an exclusive deal, and you can bet they plan on keeping it that way.

Now, I’m trying to read between the lines of your question. If I understand you correctly, you’d like to earn Delta SkyMiles from use of a Visa card. If that’s the case, the Hilton HHonors card truly isn’t your best overall choice, unless you want to have the backup to free nights at Hilton. There are three major Visa cards that you can use to earn SkyMiles: Hilton Honors Visa (earns .15 SkyMiles per dollar spent), Marriott Rewards Visa (.20 SkyMiles per dollar spent) and the Priority Club Visa (.25 SkyMiles per dollar spent). They all offer about the same bonus: 10,000 points. All of these exchange rates are based on the basic/first level redemption from hotel points into SkyMiles.

So you can see that, while it’s nice to have a Visa, if you are looking to earn the most SkyMiles, Priority Club is the best of the bunch, and it’s still not very good. After all, most Visa cards associated with a frequent flyer program offer one mile per dollar spent.

There is, however, a smaller hotel program that offers a Visa card which provides a better redemption rate when converting to Delta SkyMiles. If you belong to the Radisson Gold Rewards program, you can get a GoldPoints Visa card and earn three points per dollar spent. Because Radisson redeems at a rate of 8:1, you’ll end up earning .375 SkyMiles for every dollar spent — almost three times the rate of the Hilton Visa (in fact, Radisson recently changed its mileage conversion from 4:1, which meant in the past you might have been earning .75 SkyMiles for every dollar spent, but those days are gone).

I hope this helps you understand the choices available to you, though if it’s really just free travel on Delta you want, you could always get the United Mileage Plus Visa card and earn one mile per dollar spent and then redeem your United miles for free trips on Delta. Keep in mind though, it you go this route the miles earned are not combinable with SkyMiles and you would always run the risk of that partnership changing.

Now, which Visa card for you?

Question: I understand that it is against the rules to "sell" airlines miles, but I wonder if my situation would be viewed similarly. I have 300,000 AmEx/Diners points ready to transfer to the frequent flier account of the highest bidder. Is this against AmEx/Diners rules? Is this against the airline’s rules? Thanks, Elrod6

WiseFlyer: We all know that airlines have very specific rules against the buying, selling and barter of miles. Hotel programs often have similar rules. It seems that what you are trying to do is "legally" sell your miles/points before they fall under the jurisdiction of an airline or hotel program.

The truth is you probably can, as the transaction would actually take place in an agreement preceding any interaction with a frequent flyer program and does not violate the actual rules of the frequent flyer program. In this case, the transaction is not based on the "miles" or "property" of that program. I have searched the fine print of both credit card programs and have chatted with representatives of each program and can confirm that, currently, no restrictions exist with regard to the type of transaction you are considering — though they are all very cognizant of the rules of their partners against such transactions.

Now, is it illegal? Clearly, the laws of this country do not prevent the buying and selling of your miles and points. However, any action taken against the posted property of an airline or hotel is certainly subject to a theft of services charge and more. I make this distinction because the airlines and hotels have made a very subtle effort to declare that miles and points do not belong to you. Here is the fine print regarding this point as printed in the membership guide of the American AAdvantage program: "Accrued mileage credit and award certificates and award tickets do not constitute property of the member."

So, can you carry out your plan? You can, but you run a risk. I know that most programs have monitored popular auction sites for such activity and have even placed bids to determine the member and meet them at the other end of the transaction. My guess, though, is that you’re safe. Even if you were busted, the frequent flyer program would have a very difficult time proving you were involved in a theft of its services. It is likely, however, that this loophole, which exists due to a lack of supporting restrictions by either American Express or Diners Club, will be closed as popular auctions on the Internet are held to closer scrutiny.

Question: I’ve had a green AMEX w/ Membership Rewards for about 10 years. I’ve racked up a lot of Membership Rewards points. Anyway, it still is annoying to pay the yearly fees, which, with a two-card account, comes to around $130/yr. Recently, they sent me a BLUE card, which has no fees and the Membership Rewards Options program (how does Options differs from the regular one). If I ALWAYS pay my balance in full, which AMEX (of all 30+ of them) is the right one to use to gain the most miles and pay the least in fees?

WiseFlyer: First of all, the American Express Options program allows you to earn Membership Rewards points without an annual fee; however, you will only earn one mile per two dollars spent. That is not good math if you spend more than $6,500 a year with each card. Once you accumulate 13,000 miles with your current cards, you are getting them for one cent a mile ($130/13,000) — and that cost is reduced even further as you use the card more. That’s a pretty good deal, since generally you’ll get at least 1.5 cents per mile of redemption value later on. Read this as pre-paid travel. This little conversion ratio often seems to get lost in the all-consuming desire to avoid paying any annual credit card fee.

You want to stick with American Express? Visit the Starwood Preferred Guest program and apply for its American Express card. It’s fee free for the first year and only $30 per year thereafter. So, in the span of two years this advice will have saved you $200. You will earn points in the Preferred Guest program, which can then be converted to most frequent flyer programs at a 1:1 ratio (even better if you convert 20,000 points at a time, but you’ll learn that later on). It’s a regular American Express card, though not green any more. The only thing you’ll be missing if you choose this option are the special double point promotions offered by the Membership Rewards program from time to time and the merchandise offers. If you can live without those things, then you’ve got a new credit card waiting for you.

P.S. you’ll also get a pretty decent free hotel room deal as an added bonus (better than converting Membership Rewards points to hotel points).