Credit Card Benefits -- Denied!

Frequent Flyer Q&A
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Credit card on keyboard (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 2, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: American Express, booking strategy, credit card, Delta, free travel, frequent flyer, Frequent Flyer Q&A, mileage redemption, Tim Winship.

Dear Tim—

I recently signed up for the American Express Gold SkyMiles card, adding my husband as an additional card holder. I just used Pay with Miles to purchase one full ticket and $100 off my son's ticket, using a total of 35,000 miles. My husband tried to book his ticket, using SkyMiles he had accrued over the years and it wouldn't allow it. After several hours of being directed back and forth from Delta to Amex and back and forth again, they determined that he wasn't a "cardholder" after all. I found that curious since he has a gold Amex card with his name on it and a different account number (albeit by just two numbers) than mine.

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Delta's website clearly states that the Pay with Miles feature is available to SkyMiles members with a Delta SkyMiles Amex card. They wouldn't budge. Can you help?

Kat

Dear Kat—

This is a case where the devil is in the details. Or rather in the fine print. Or, as it turns out, missing from the fine print.

First, for readers who aren't familiar with Delta's Pay with Miles, it's a program feature that permits SkyMiles members to pay for Delta tickets with a combination of cash and frequent flyer miles.

For marketing reasons, the feature can only be used by those SkyMiles members who hold a program-affiliated credit card issued by American Express. According to Delta's website: "Pay with Miles is an exclusive benefit for SkyMiles members with a Gold, Platinum, or Reserve Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express."

So why isn't your husband's Gold SkyMiles card eligible for the perk?

Based on a between-the-lines reading of the companies' refusal to allow your husband to book flights via Pay with Miles, it is apparently the intent of Delta and American Express to limit the use of Pay with Miles to the primary cardholder. While your husband has a card issued in his name, you are the account holder—the primary cardholder—not him.

So much for the facts.

From an ethical and legal standpoint, the question arises: Have Delta and American Express adequately communicated their intent to limit Pay with Miles to the primary cardholder?

I closely read the Pay with Miles page on Delta's website, including all 743 words printed in tiny type under "Terms and Conditions." Twice. I saw nothing to suggest that non-primary cardholders were entitled to any fewer benefits than primary cardholders.

The same is true of the landing page for the American Express SkyMiles Gold credit card, where American Express encourages additional card accounts thusly: "2,500 bonus miles will be awarded to your Delta SkyMiles account for each approved Additional Card submitted with this application, up to a maximum of 5,000 bonus miles." Aside from the lesser sign-up bonus, there's no indication that the benefits accruing to the second or third cards are any different from those associated with the primary card.

In other words, the intended restriction does not appear in any of the places one would expect to find such a significant policy. So this is not a case of your having failed to read the fine print—it's a case of the fine print failing to include the relevant restriction.

Delta and American Express have every right to limit benefits to the primary cardholder. But they need to prominently display and clearly articulate the distinction between primary and non-primary cardholders, and warn that Pay with Miles applies to the former and not to the latter. Until they do, it is only natural that consumers will make the assumption you did—the same assumption I would have made had I not read your note.

Under the above circumstances, Delta and American Express owe you an apology, at the very least.

Printing out this column and sending it to them may or may not help with that.

 
 
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