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(This post is focused on maximizing Delta awards. Future posts will focus on American, United/Continental, US Airways, Air Canada and British Airways. If you have any other suggestions, feel free to comment below or email me).
There are a lot of things I love about using miles and points for travel. Beyond the fact that it makes super-luxury travel in premium cabins attainable, award travel gives me flexibility to visit several different places on one ticket – all for the same price.
While it’s difficult for many people just to get a simple round-trip ticket booked, you need to understand that huge value lies in being able to build in stopovers, transfers and open jaws into your award.
What exactly are those things? A stopover is a stop in a city for more than 24 hours and a transfer is less than 24 hours (or 4 hours on a domestic award). Delta also allows an open jaw, which means coming home from a different city from where you flew into (this is great for planning flights around a cruise that ends in a different city).
Stopover: If you want to fly Chicago to Rome, you could do Chicago to London, spend 5 days, then continue London-Rome
Transfer: Chicago to London arriving at noon on a Saturday and then continuing onto Rome at 11am the following morning.
Open Jaw: Fly to London and fly home from Rome (like if you had a tour pre-booked from London-Paris-Rome, for example)
Limits: You can’t build in stopovers that make no sense. For example New York to London with a stop in Los Angeles. That wouldn’t be the most direct routing and it would violate the maximum permitted mileage between New York and London. To find out the maximum permitted mileage, you can call the airline or use Expertflyer.com -> Travel Information -> Maximum Permitted Mileage. Once you enter in JFK-LHR and Delta, it shows a MPM of 4,149. I use the Great Circle Mapper to find out flight distances, which shows me that JFK-LHR is only 3,451 (ExpertFlyer also shows it under TPM at 3,458). Note that MPM can be exceeded by 5% or even more if you can make a compelling reason to a ticketing agent why you need to exceed the MPM. In general, I’ve never had to even worry about MPM when booking Delta awards.
Another limit is the number of segments allowed. Delta allows 8 segments for award tickets. A segment is each individual flight you take. LAX-JFK-LHR-JFK-LAX is 4 segments.
Another limitation is that the distance between your two open jaw destinations (for example Rome and London) can not be further than the distance of your outbound leg (New York to London). For example, you could not do New York to London, Johannesburg to New York.
While some people want to minimize the time spent traveling, for me I like to maximize the places I go with miles. Let’s take my summer trip for example. My best friend lives in Madrid and I wanted to spend a couple weeks in Europe in July. I could have booked JFK-MAD-JFK for 100,000 miles in business class and dealt with the intra-European legs later, like most people do. However, I know that Delta allows a stopover and open jaw on award tickets.
Knowing the rules, I knew I had several options.
So if I wanted to spend a couple days in France, then continue onto Madrid and then come home from Barcelona, I could have done; JFK – Paris (stop), Paris – Madrid (Destination), Barcelona – JFK. That would allow me to visit three cities, for the same award price – 100,000 miles in business class.
Let’s say I wanted to try out Air France’s new A380 and spend a night in Montreal visiting friends on the way home. In that case I could have still done the same itinerary JFK – Paris (stop), Paris – Madrid (destination), Barcelona – Paris – Montreal (22 hours in Montreal), Montreal – JFK. All for 100,000 miles, all in business class (except the last leg Montreal – JFK, which is an all-coach regional jet, but would still be included for free).
Spending 100,000 miles for Europe and building in a bunch of cities can be a great value, but what is an amazing value is that for 20,000 -40,000 miles more, you can also add on a trip to Africa. Delta just instituted a new region for South Africa, so that costs 140,000 miles total, but everywhere else in Africa is 120,000. I took advantage of this last summer with my trip to Seychelles. Originally I was planning to go to Paris for 100,000 miles, but for a mere 20,000 miles extra, I tacked on a side-trip to the Seychelles on Air Seychelles (code-shared with Air France, which is why I was able to book it on my Skyteam Delta award). I wrote all about that trip here (there are also detailed in flight reports of Air Seychelles, which I was very impressed with overall, even though the seats were outdated). If you’ve never been to Seychelles and are looking for an out-of-this-world experience, I highly recommend it. Le Meridien Barbarons just lowered the amount of SPG points needed to 10,000, which can be a great value. There is a Four Seasons and a Banyan Tree Resort in the Seychelles, both of which are apparently other-worldly, but you might end up needing to take out a second mortgage to pay the bill.
Since I did Seychelles last summer, I thought I should do South Africa this summer, even though it’s winter there. I had no issues finding award space Newark – Paris -Johannesburg (with 14 hours in Paris, so more than enough time to get a nice lunch and relax for the day), but the return segment Johannesburg – Paris had no availability on the days I wanted. Instead, I pulled up my trusty tool airfrance.us and found routing through Nairobi and London on Kenya Airways (a Skyteam member).
I kid you not, I then found out I had to be in Los Angeles at the end of the trip. So instead of flying back to New York and then buying a coach ticket New York – Los Angeles (and praying for the upgrade), I used the valuable open jaw option to just end my trip in Los Angeles. In essence I’d be flying from New York to Johannesburg and then Johannesburg to Los Angeles, with a stop in Paris (and a couple overnight transfers on the way). What I ended up booking was:
Outbound: Newark – Paris – Johannesburg (destination), Return: Johannesburg-Nairobi (overnight transfer 18 hours), Nairobi – London (overnight transfer 14 hours), London – Paris (stop for a week), Paris – Los Angeles.
All in business class for 140,000 Skymiles and $288 in taxes/fees.
To further complicate things, several factors changed and I had to scrap the beautifully orchestrated trip I put together above and instead rebook something else for a different time-frame. As a Diamond medallion, Delta allows unlimited changes/award redeposits for free. So when I had to cancel the trip, my miles were instantly redeposited and the fees refunded to my credit card. This policy is the same for Platinum Medallions – everyone else has to pay $150 to redeposit/change an award, which still isn’t that bad considering you have to pay $250 plus a refare when you book revenue tickets.
My new trip is to Mauritius, so I actually got 20,000 miles back and will get to try out Air Mauritius, which codeshares with Air France. My goal on this trip is to learn how to scuba dive, which I’ve always wanted to do.
JFK – Madrid (Air Europa business class), Barcelona – Paris – Mauritius (destination), Mauritius – Paris (20 hour overnight transfer), Paris – Montreal (to test out Air France’s A380 and then a 20 hour overnight transfer), Montreal – JFK.
All for 120,000 miles and $400 in fees (not sure why they were higher, but it’s still a steal considering this trip would be over $10,000 to book with cash).
So, to sum it up – the point of this post is not to brag about my awesome upcoming trips (though I’m pretty excited for them). It’s to empower you to think creatively and get as much value as possible out of your hard earned miles and points. Many people make fun of Skymiles for being “SkyPesos,” but they just don’t know how to use them. I’ll admit that Delta.com is broken and it is a bit of a wild-goose chase getting low awards, but once you figure out how to filter out the noise and search for availability, the rewards are enormous – especially since it’s pretty easy to accrue Skymiles.