Maximizing Amex Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners

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This is another installment in my Maximizing Amex series where I examine the benefits of American Express cards and Amex’s Membership Rewards Program. The articles include; Post 1: Understanding the Card Offering. Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards. Post 3: Understanding Transfer Bonuses. Post 4: Platinum Card Review. Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners. Post 6: Oneworld Transfer Partners. Post 7: Star Alliance Transfer Partners. Post 8:Understanding Emergency Travel Assistance and Travel Accident Insurance. Post 9: Purchase and Return Protection and Extended Warranty. Post 10: Car Rental Benefits. Post 11: Gold and Premier Rewards Gold Card Comparison.

As I covered in the post on Understanding Membership Rewards, one of the most valuable aspects of having a Membership Rewards or Membership Rewards First Amex card, is the ability to transfer points to 17 airline partners. The beauty of airline frequent flyer programs is that they allow you to redeem for flights on their alliance partners, so it is in your best interest to know which programs have the most flexible award rules and cheapest fees so that you can maximize the value of your American Express Membership Reward point transfers.

Today’s focus will be on the SkyTeam transfer partners Delta, Air France and Alitalia. All three are part of the SkyTeam alliance, which also includes Seoul based Korean Airlines, Moscow based Aeroflot, Mexico City based Aeromexico, Madrid based Air Europa, Shanghai based China Southern, Prague based Czech Airlines, Nairobi based Kenya Airlines, Bucharest based Tarom Airlines and Hanoi based Vietnam Airlines. Within the next couple years there will be several more additions to SkyTeam including Jeddah based Saudi Arabian, Beirut based Middle Eastern Airlines, Jakarta based Garuda and Buenos Aires based Aerolineas Argentinas.

Since Delta is the most popular SkyTeam transfer partners and they often run lucrative transfer bonuses, I’ll focus mostly on giving you tips to maximize the value of that particular partnership. However, I also listed key information for Flying Blue and Alitalia as well. Please comment below if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them in a timely manner.

Delta Skymiles:
New Member Registration link.
1- Leverage lucrative transfer bonuses. Right now, Delta has a one-time 50% and 25,000 MQM bonus when you transfer at least 50,000 Amex points; an unbelievable deal if used correctly.
2- Delta has pretty low award fees. Domestic awards are usually around $5 and European awards are generally under $100 in fees, unless you fly to London or Paris. I paid $250 in fees for my Paris and Seychelles business class trip on Air France. Note: If you originate in Europe, you will get hit with a ~$250 “foreign origination” surcharge.
3- Do not trust Delta.com to show you 100% of award availability. Delta.com is broken and will drive you insane at times. Use a combination of airfrance.us, calling and expertflyer to get a better sense of availability.
4- Skymiles allows a stopover and an open jaw. So you can plan something like US to Athens, Greece (destination) then take a cruise to Istanbul and then fly Istanbul to Paris (stop for as long as you want) and then continue home to the US. Just like I recommended with British Airways miles, this can allow you to add on a free leg. Say you wanted to go Atlanta-Paris-Atlanta. You could book that and then add on an Atlanta-LAX for a future date since that would count as your stopover. Just remember, all routings have to be valid, so you can’t do something crazy like Paris-Seattle (stop)-Miami because Seattle isn’t a valid connection point between Paris and Miami.
5- Skymiles never expire

Tips on using SkyMiles for Awards

1) Don’t let the Delta award calendar do the thinking for you. The online search engine is broken – period. Even if it shows “low” awards they often price at crazy levels. The best way is to piece together your itinerary is one leg at a time. So if you want to go from Boston to Madrid, figure out what flights are “low” level from BOS-JFK/ATL and then find out what flights are low JFK/ATL and all the way back. Once you have all low level legs, use the multi-city search and piece them all together. The Delta engine will automatically stick you with medium/high legs, thus repricing your itinerary to needlessly expensive levels.

2) Try to use partners as much as possible. Any partner availability will be at the low level. For Air France/KLM/Kenyan availability, create a Flying Blue account, which will allow you to search by month. Expertflyer.com is a great paid tool that allows you to search for Air France, Aeroflot, China Southern, Malaysian, Air Europa, Alitalia and Alaska award availability. Once you find the routes with availability, try booking them on delta.com using the multi-city search and if that isn’t working, call and feed the phone agent the information.

3) Book last minute awards. Delta opens up a lot of last minute award tickets and they don’t charge a last minute booking fee, unlike US Airways and American.

4) Call for availability. While some reps will brush you off, it is possible to find a gem who will work hard to help you get the award you want. Trust me, the reps are just as frustrated as we are that the online search engines are broken.

5) Get creative on routing. Remember that Delta has a lot of US hubs – Atlanta, New York JFK/ LGA, Detroit, Memphis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. If JFK-LAX is only showing at the “medium” level, try doing JFK-SLC-LAX, which is often available at low levels.

6) Don’t try to redeem for international first class – SkyMiles are only available for coach, domestic first and international business class.

7) Upgrading is expensive on Delta, but can be worth it. I recently upgraded a $900 Hawaii trip using 30,000 miles, which I felt was a good value, since I earned almost that many miles with my Platinum bonus and promotions.

8 ) Always check to see if first class is available for the same or less miles. I’ve seen many 60,000 mile coach itineraries that are available at the “low” first class level of 45,000 miles.

9) Don’t forget about non-Skyteam partners! Skymiles can be used on Alaska, Avianca, Virgin Australia, Air Asia, JetStar, Air Tahiti Nui, Hawaiian, China Airlines, Jet, Malaysian and Kingfisher. Most of the time you have to call to get availability on these partners, but since they can’t be booked online, most people never consider them. As a result, I’ve always had good luck booking these awards.

10) BE PERSISTENT.  Checking a million different one-way routings and partner availability may be tiring, but persistence pays off.

Air France Flying Blue:
New Member Registration link.
In my view, there are three main reasons why you’d want to transfer Amex points to Flying Blue, otherwise you are much better off transferring to Delta and booking SkyTeam awads through them:
1- Flying Blue allows one-way awards on Flying Blue partners Air France, KLM, Kenya and Tarom.
2- You want to book a 50% off promo award. Flying Blue often releases lists of half priced awards (25,000 miles roundtrip from US to Europe in coach or 50,000 miles in business class, for example. Click here for the current list)
3- You have elite status with Flying Blue and accumulate all miles there.
Key things to note:
1- Flying Blue has very high taxes/fees. In fact, they rival British Airways, so don’t be shocked when you see a $500 pricetag for a transatlantic award. The only time I recommend using Flying Blue is for 50% off promos, otherwise you are much better off redeeming for the same flights using Delta. You should do a cost benefit analysis – is a 25,000 miles flight plus $500 in fees worth it vs. using 60,000 Delta miles and $30? Especially since Delta has such lucrative transfer bonuses, I almost always go choose Delta.
2- You can only redeem for First Class (Premiere class) awards if you have Flying Blue elite status.
3- There are three types of awards- Classic (which are the awards that can be redeemed using Delta miles), Flexible (only redeemed using FlyingBlue miles) and Promo (can be redeemed using Delta or FlyingBlue). Note: You only get the 50% discount when redeeming promo awards with FlyingBlue miles. Delta will not discount the award.
4- You can book one-way (on Flying Blue partners), roundtrip, open jaw (when both the destination and return are in the same award zone) and stopover awards, but the stopover awards need to be booked over the phone per the award T&C:
3.14 Awards tickets shall be issued for (i) a one-way flight, (ii) a return flight or (iii) an “open-jaw round trip flight” on AIR FRANCE, KLM and/or – the Airline Partners following the most direct route in both journey directions in accordance with the schemes and conditions specified in FB Communication. Subject to the conditions specified in FB Communication, there may be a break in the journey (stopover). An “open-jaw round trip flight” is a round-trip flight in which points of departure and arrival are different but within the same award zone, or where the originating station for the return flight is different from the arrival station for the outgoing flight but within the same award zone.
5- FlyingBlue points expire 20 months with no account activity.

Alitalia Milemiglia:

New Member Registration link.
In my view, there are three main reasons why you’d want to transfer Amex points to Milemiglia, otherwise you are much better off transferring to Delta and booking SkyTeam awads through them:
1- Milemiglia allows business class awards from the US To Europe/North Africa for 80,000 miles. (Skyteam Award chart). Delta still makes more sense when there are 50% transfer bonuses, but without transfer bonuses, Alitalia is more lucrative.
2-Milemiglia allows partner redemptions on with Etihad, Jet, Malaysian and Qantas
Key things to note:
1- One way Skyteam awards are not allowed
2- A stopover is permitted, but “only one voluntary stop-over is allowed, but it must not last more than length of stay in the final destination of the travel itinerary.”
3- Standard flights should be bookable with all Skyteam miles, Plus flights can only be booked with Milemiglia.
4- Taxes can be substantial
5- You have to book most awards using the phone call center and whenever using a call center, you are subject to agents who don’t know the rules an extra fees
6- Miles expire after 24 months of no activity
Overall – I’ve never used Milemiglia, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad program.

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