Hacking airline status: How I earned Delta Gold and United Gold status after flying just 12,500 miles

My wife and I just traveled around the world for a year. Before we started our trip I got Delta Gold status and United Gold status, and I did it without flying the 100,000 miles that would normally be required.

Having gold status on United and Delta didn’t just mean we got hooked up when flying on these two carriers; it meant we were also hooked up when flying on any of their 47 total partner airlines worldwide. Benefits included:

  • Lounge access on international flights
  • Free checked baggage
  • Free economy plus/comfort
  • Priority lines at check in, security, and boarding
  • Priority rebooking if a flight is delayed/cancelled
  • Free upgrades to business class

Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Earn Delta Gold Medallion using credit cards and spending

  1. Apply for the Delta Reserve American Express card. You earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after your first purchase.
  2. Charge $60,000 on that card to earn 30,000 additional MQMs.
  3. Apply for the Delta Reserve Business American Express card. You earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after your first purchase.

In total you’ll earn 50,000 MQMs which gets you Delta Gold status for the year. There’s no flying needed.

Spending $60,000 (without being stupid) in a short time period isn’t easy. Here’s how we did it:

  1. We moved 100% of our spending to this card.
  2. We purchased gift cards for sites like Amazon, Apple, iTunes, and others. We knew we’d use these eventually.
  3. Instead of giving people cash/checks as gifts, we only gave gift cards.
  4. We prepaid a bunch of our taxes. This incurred a fee, but it was worth it (more on this later).
  5. What we didn’t do: buy anything we wouldn’t have otherwise bought.
air china upgrade

Free upgrade to business class on Air China, a United partner.

Step 2: Earn United Gold by doing a status match challenge

Once I had Delta Gold status, I applied for the United Airlines status match challenge. Through this challenge, you only need to fly 12,500 miles in 90 days to get Gold status for the year.

Lucky for us, we already had trips to Cabo and Buffalo lined up on United. It wasn’t quite enough so I booked the cheapest roundtrip ticket to the east coast I could find. Once I hit 12,500 miles on United, I had Gold status for 2016!

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Mileage run! My flight to Boston landed early, and I was able to jump on an even earlier flight back to San Francisco. I was in Boston for less than an hour.

What was the total cost?

  1. The annual fee on two Delta Amex credit cards: $900
  2. Roundtrip ticket to Boston on United: $300
  3. Credit card fee (2%) for online tax payments: $600

Total cost was $1800 to get status on both airlines, so it wasn’t cheap. But I also earned about 80,000 bonus Delta miles, which are worth $1600-$2000. Taking that into account, I broke even.

sing lounge

The Singapore Airlines lounge was incredible. Unlimited high end champagne! We were able to get into a partner lounge for almost every single flight we took (60 flights total).

Was it worth it?

Absolutely! I did all this at the end of 2015, so I had gold status for all of 2016 through February 1, 2017, almost our entire trip. Instead of dreading going to the airport, we looked forward to getting through the checkin process quickly and hitting the lounge for some wine.

Flying can be difficult and stressful. But having gold status can help make things go smoothly. You can’t do this every year, but if you have a year when you’ll be flying a ton it’s totally worth it.

Renting a car? How to make sure you aren’t paying too much for insurance

When you rent a car and get to the rental counter, one of two things happen:

  1. You assume you’re insured, by your home policy or by your credit card, and you don’t buy additional coverage.
  2. You don’t know if you’re covered or not, the rental counter says you aren’t, and you buy coverage on the spot for way too much money.

This is not ok! Rental car companies design their websites and policies to be cryptic and misleading so they can scare you and rip you off! Your home policy or credit card may cover you but there are lots of caveats to be aware of.

We’ve rented a lot of cars in the past year. Here’s what we’ve learned:

bmw

Our rental car in Tasmania

  1. If you own a car and have a car insurance policy in the United States, it probably will extend to cars rented in the United States or Canada. However, your home policy won’t extend abroad. If you think your policy does, call your insurer and see it in writing.
  2. If you don’t own a car and you have a non-car-owner policy (like me), then your auto policy will give you liability insurance when renting a car in the United States and Canada, but not collision.
  3. Credit cards offering car insurance give you collision insurance only, not liability. This is a huge gap in coverage!
  4. Many credit cards only offer secondary insurance (kicks in after other coverage is exhausted), and exclude many countries from coverage. Read the fine print before you depend on this coverage.
    • Premium credit cards like Chase Sapphire and Citi Prestige offer free primary collision insurance worldwide with no exclusions. Surprisingly, even American Express has restrictions so I don’t use them for car rentals.
  5. Car rental websites don’t make it clear what insurance is included because they want to upsell you on extra coverage later. Don’t fall for it. Understand what is and isn’t included in the base price.
  6. In many European countries, Australia, and New Zealand, there are strict laws about what car insurance is required to drive. Therefore, we’ve found that most rentals include liability insurance. In many countries, it’s called “third party insurance”.
  7. Collision insurance is almost never included in the base price for a rental car, but if you select the option at the time of renting online you can add it for just a few dollars per day. The key here is to buy it online, not at the counter.
  8. People who work at rental counters are clueless. They have very little training in insurance, so you should never plan on asking them questions or making decisions at the counter.
  9. Collision insurance (covers your car) is also known as a Loss Damage Waiver. There’s a deductible and you’re covered beyond that amount. Often when you walk into a rental office and ask “does my rate include insurance?” the employee will say “no” because technically an LDW isn’t insurance. But they serve the same purpose so don’t be fooled.
  10. You should always print your car rental invoice/receipt and take it with you to the rental counter. Make sure the rental agreement you sign in person matches your invoice. There should be no ambiguity.
  11. We’ve found that autoeurope.com and sixt.com generally do a good job of detailing what insurance is included when you are renting online. We use hertz.com a lot too but you have to really dig into the fine print to understand insurance.

Bottom line:

Dealing with car insurance sucks. But if you do a little research and planning up front you can save a ton of money. Once you do this a couple times, it becomes pretty easy to find the fine print you’re looking for.

I don’t own a car, but I have a non-car-owner auto policy that gives me liability coverage when renting in the Unites States. That doesn’t include collision so I pay for the rental with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to get that coverage.

When I rent a car abroad, I always get full insurance from the rental company. I only book on websites that make it very clear what insurance is included. And it’s usually not much more money as long as I do this at time of booking.

Using the rental company for collision insurance (vs my credit card) is also more convenient. If I get into an accident: I can simply pay the rental company the deductible and walk away. If I use my credit card for insurance, I’ll have to pay the rental car company the cost of the damages and get reimbursed later.

If you have other thoughts, tips, feedback please post it in the comments.

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autoeurope.com searches across many rental car companies like Hertz and Sixt. It does a great job of clearly showing you what insurance is or isn’t included so I always start here.

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Sixt.com sends you an PDF confirmation that makes it clear what insurance you have on your rental. Take this with you to the counter. Once the counter agent claimed we had no insurance purchased. Luckily we had proof!

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Hertz is pretty sleazy. You can’t tell what insurance is or isn’t included by looking at this confirmation page, even in the Terms and Conditions fine print.

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Once you open the 22 page rental agreement on Hertz.com, you can see that all rentals in Europe include third party insurance, and most include collision insurance. Most people won’t know this and they will be sold additional coverage at the counter.

 

Appendix

Definition of Collision Insurance, also known as a Loss Damage Waiver

“Collision” insurance covers your car, the one that you rented. There’s no stated upper bound, because the upper limit is the full value of that car (say, $10,000 for a Corolla). Collision insurance has a deductible, the amount you would need to pay in the case of an accident. It’s usually in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars.

Collision insurance might also be called a “loss damage waiver.” It means the car rental company is waiving their right to collect money from you above a certain amount. It’s the same thing, but different legal lingo.

Definition of Liability Insurance, also known as Third Party Insurance

Liability insurance, or third party coverage, insures other cars and people in the case of an accident. Liability insurance has no deductible, but it does have an upper limit which is usually in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

This insurance is *more* important than collision because of the risk: your Corolla rental may only be worth $10,000, but if you hit a Ferrari and the driver is injured, you could be sued for millions!

This is probably getting into the “super paranoid” territory, but I only rent cars from large, international rental chains. That’s because insurance is only valuable if the company insuring you is able and willing to pay a claim. If they don’t, you’re on your own. Example: I believe Hertz will pay my claim if I have an issue, but a mom and pop rental shop in Greece might not be able to pay a $1M claim.

How eDreams gets the lowest prices on flights, and why you should never use them

Kate and I are planning a trip to South America in November. We’ve been booking domestic flights this week.

One flight we needed was a one way from Lima to Santiago. On Kayak it was $950 from all websites other than edreams.com, where it was $550. Big difference. We booked the flight.

I looked up reviews for eDreams and they are awful. I’ve never seen a service get such bad reviews. A common complaint was that people didn’t have a reservation they thought they had. Sometimes it was because eDreams never booked it, and sometimes because eDreams cancelled it after booking.

A couple hours after booking my flight I received the confirmation. I took the confirmation number and looked it up directly on the airline’s website. What I found is that eDreams had booked a roundtrip ticket even though I had requested a one way flight.

I looked up the roundtrip ticket on Kayak and sure enough it was cheap: $500, even less than the one way route.

So eDreams hack is to book these roundtrip tickets and then cancel some legs later. I think that’s illegal.

Now that I’ve read the reviews and I know how they are hacking the system, I’d stay away from edreams.com at all costs.

If you don’t do research on your purchases, you will be taken advantage of

The shower handle in my second bathroom was broken. I couldn’t adjust the temperature so I was taking really hot showers. I called a plumber. The guy looked at it for 10 seconds (literally) and quoted me $450 for the repair. He wouldn’t tell me what part was needed or any details on the repair. He wanted me to trust him.

I called a second plumber. He actually spent some time and disassembled the unit. He talked a better talk and quoted me $350. Still no details on what was broken.

He was slow to get the part he claimed I needed, so I looked up the details of the unit I had and found the installation instructions. I spent 1 hour and I fixed it myself. I didn’t buy any new parts. Nothing was broken, it was just assembled incorrectly.

I’m sure 99% of people would have paid the money.

Lesson: do research and be a savvy consumer. Whether it’s a big purchase like a house or car, or something small like a home repair, know exactly what you’re paying for and fight back if you’re not getting the answers you want.

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