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Maximizing Amex Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners

by on April 26, 2011 · 27 comments

in Alitalia, American Express, Delta, Flying Blue, Points Guy Pointers

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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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Michael

    If I have 150k sky-miles and want to fly international biz from lax to Paris, in october, returning from London and create an open jaw so I can have an lax-JFK open jaw, how would you go about it so I use te fewest miles?

  • pixel girl

    Would you recommend transferring MRs to Delta now to take advantage of the bonus, even if you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to use them for?

    Or is it better to keep in MR and take advantage of the flexibility? (I have about 100k)

    Thanks!

  • Sergey

    @TPG: I don’t quite understand 4) for Delta SkyMiles. Am I right, that I can add any domestic leg (even after original travel dates) to my award international itinerary? It would be very nice.

    I am planning my summer trip TPA-JFK (stopover for 4-5 days) – KBP (open jaw), SVO-TPA. Can I add something to my planning itinerary, like TPA-XNA for travel month later?

  • The Points Guy

    @michael-a little confused with what you want to do. Do you want to do LAX-JFK (stop), JFK-CDG (destination) and then CDG-LAX? If so, that should be fine. The biggest issue you will face is finding low level availability on JFK-LAX. Since Delta prices a la carte, even if you find teh Air France legs, you will need to pay 80k EXTRA for the JFK-LAX portion. Depending on the mood of Delta.com, the award may price out at 180k or 130k (180/2 + 100/2). You may want to route LAX-ATL-JFK or through other hubs to get it to 100k total.

    @Pixel- I think the 50% transfer is generous, especially if you want to use the Skymiles on partner international awards. Not sure what city you live in, but if its a hub that has Air France service, you probably won’t have much of an issue putting those Skymiles to use. If you redeem for domestic travel that another story.

    @Sergey- TPA-JFK (stop)- KBP, SVO-TPA is already 1 open jaw and 1 stopover, so you couldn’t do another add-on. Also something to note is that it has to be valid routing. So Delta may not allow you to stop in Tampa on SVO-XNA- you have to call and ask if it would be valid routing.

  • pixel girl

    Thanks, as always, for your advice!

    I’m based in BOS and probably looking to do Europe travel with these points — ideally business class.

  • gpapadop

    I think you may need to edit & add MAD somewhere in the first example of using Skymiles for awards?

    I think you are being too kind to mention that DL’s award search engine is broken & pricing can drive us insane;-)

  • Derek Stewart

    @Michael The open jaw is CDG to LHR. If I am reading you right, JFK would be the stopover. It would be LAX-CDG // LHR-JFK-LAX. Follow points 1,2 & 5 above. Search segment by segment. Find out where DL and AF fly from CDG and LHR and try a lot of different combinations such as LAX-ATL-CDG //LHR-JFK-ATL-LAX all depending on what is available.

    Cheers.

  • pixel girl

    Can you say a little more about how to book an AirFrance/Flying Blue award through Delta?

    I’ve found tons of availability on the AirFrance award site, but these same flights don’t show up when going through Delta. Would I call Delta directly for help? Do I need to be sure it’s an AirFrance flight and not a different partner?

    Is the AirFrance award availability tool reliable? (Seems like its too good to be true…)

    Thanks a million!

  • Adam

    Air France/Flying Blue website does tend to be reliable. Just like any other awards site, availability is constantly changing. We were trying to get my in-laws back from CDG on the same flight as us for months, but were only able to get them Premium Economy on the early flight, then bam, one day the classic award showed up randomly for PE on our flight and we called and had them changed.

    My experience with Alitalia is that they have pretty good award value (when not considering other promos), but horrible customer service. Their web award booking is pretty much a joke, so you end up dealing with the call center (for the US that is located in Argentina). For the above trip I spoke about, we got Business class tickets from LAX to rome (and return) with a stopover in Paris on AF for 3 (myself, wife, 1 child) at 80k miles per piece (transferred from MR). That booking was not so bad. When we later tried to get seats for my in-laws, it turned into a 6 month mess. My wife had called Alitalia call center, they had confirmed and held the itinerary for 2 on the same flights, the Amex points were transferred, and then, the seats were suddenly unconfirmed. I’ll spare you all the expansive details about dealing with supervisors and their assurances (and my wife is very good with these situations, she probably spent 30+hours on the phone with these people, and they had recorded the original call with the agent confirming the seats), their calls to Rome, customer service in New York, and emails. (Apparently they really don’t have much pull within skyteam) We ended up giving up on them and booking award flights directly with Air France for my in-laws. Finally, last week, our 160k miles ended up back in our MR account at Amex with no communication from Alitalia that they were responding with our request to do so. What a relief to have that nightmare over.

    Better luck to you all if you choose to go with Alitalia.

  • The Points Guy

    @Pixel- is you see Classic awards showing on airfrance.us, then you should be able to book them with Delta miles. Note: Premium Economy awards cannot be booked using Delta Skymiles. Also beware that their calendar is not perfect- some days show green, classic availability, but when you click through, you’ll notice that its actually premium economy space, which doesn’t help.

    @Adam- thanks for the advice. I’ve hear Alitalia customer service is iffy- your situation sounds like a nightmare- glad you were able to figure it all out.

  • Kanoelani

    I have a similar question as Sergey regarding point 4) under Delta Skymiles. I tried to book the following award ticket: DTW-BCN (open jaw) FRA-DTW (stopover) SNA. Without the final SNA stop, it cost 75K miles. With the SNA stop, it cost 115K miles. I called the Elite line twice to argue that the DTW stop from FRA should be considered a stopover, but was told that DTW-SNA is an add-on because the origin of the itinerary is different from the end. Yet, if your example of ATL-CDG-ATL (stopover) LAX works as 1 roundtrip, why wouldn’t my itinerary work?

  • The Points Guy

    Kanoelani- my guess is that the future dtw-sna leg was at a mid/high tier award, thus jacking up the price. A stopover and open jaw is definitely allowed and delta does not require that you return from where you started. I just today booked a trip JFK-CDG-JNB (destination)- NBO (overnight layover)- Lhr (overnight layover)- CDG (stopover)-lax (open jaw) for the low level 140,000 miles- all legs in business class

  • Matt

    GOL is another Delta partner for redemptions.

  • Eric

    How hard is it to use Skymiles on Air Tahiti? I REALLY want to go to Bora Bora and stay in an over water bungalow for a week.

  • The Points Guy

    @Matt- thanks – I’ll add Gol

    @Eric- if you are flexible, its not hard at all. simply load up expertflyer and search for business/coach award space LAX-PPT. Air France also flies LAX-PPT, so you can use airfrance.us for that. I have found decent availability as long as you are flexible on dates. Business class will be 150k

  • RajB

    I’m sorry if I’m missing something here. How does a DL Skymiles member check award availability on airfrance.us? When I try to log in to Flying Blue, it never recognizes my DL SM number/PIN.

    Thanks!

  • Drew

    Will you be doing a similar summary for other SkyTeam members? Specifically Aeroplan (post changes) and ANA??

    Thanks

  • The Points Guy

    @RajB- you have to sign up for a Flying Blue account (theres a link in this post). When you see Classic Awards in Flying Blue, that means you can book them using Delta miles- you just need to call Delta to book those flights.

  • Spicy B

    Don’t forget you can also redeem on China Eastern. And a small little edit- China Eastern is based out of Shanghai. China Southern is based out of Guangzhou.

  • Kim

    This is a bit off topic but Delta related. How can I check loads on Delta flights for S4 travel to Europe? I want to check a few dates for buddy passes offered by DL friend w 30 yrs of seniority. I’d like to do some leg work before I narrow down my dates for her to list me. I don’t have travel net clearance. Are there other sites good for this?

    Hope to see some folks in NYC on Saturday.

  • Michael

    Thanks so much. I was not clear before. I want to fly lax-lhr-cdg with a stopover in London for three days before goin to Paris and then flying Paris-lax back. Can I do all that for 80k skymiles

  • Tom

    I currently have 35K MR points and the ability to borrow 60k more. I currenlty have no trips planned on Delta. Is the Delta transfer bonus worth borrowing 15K MR points and doing the transfer even though I have no plans to use them now?

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  • Pete

    I have encountered another problem with Delta trying to book SAN – HPN with a stopover in RDU, then returning to SAN via an open jaw routing from Portland Maine (PWM). The SAN – ATL – RDU – ATL – HPN || PWM – ATL – SAN routing is treated by the computer as two itineraries, even though it is one stop and one open jaw. According to Delta the problem is that SAN – HPN via RDU is not considered a valid routing. It doesn’t matter how I go – there is a non-stop RDU to La Guardia which is close to HPN, but even this routing is not allowed (SAN – ATL – RDU – LGA || PWM – ATL – SAN). Any ideas? This is pricing out at 80K miles per person for my family of five with mid-tier availability.

  • Jay

    Hey TPG,

    My mother booked a cruise through travel.com and includes a flight via Alitalia. I want to surprise her by upgrading her flight to business/first, but not sure if i’m supposed to go through Alitalia or the website. I have roughly 100k delta sky miles and 170k MR points. Hope you can help. Thanks!

  • lior

    hi. thanks for the information, to your knowledge, is it possibe to transfer points from aeroflot bounos to skymiles – delta?

  • thepointsguy

    No but you can redeem Aeroflot miles for delta flights

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