Why You Should Never Assume SkyMiles Are Worthless: My Recent Success Booking Low Level Awards

by on April 25, 2013 · 34 comments

in Air Europa, Alitalia, Delta

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It doesn’t take a lot to convince me to go on a trip – especially when you say the word Madrid and face me with an imminently expiring Hyatt suite award. My best friend Lori lives in Madrid and I usually visit a couple times a year, not only to see her but to revel in the awesomeness that is Spain. I love the food, culture and overall “chillness” that Madrid has to offer – coupled with almost unrivaled nightlife and general affordability (at least in comparison with other European capitals). So recently a couple friends expressed interest in going to Madrid and I had a weekend open in May, so we decided to make a long weekend out of it.

One of my favorite places in Madrid, Retiro Park.

One of my favorite places in Madrid, Retiro Park.

My struggle though is that I’ve been to Madrid more times than I can count and I really like seeing new cities. I also had an expiring free suite night at almost any Hyatt in the world from applying for the Chase Hyatt Visa, so I wanted to max out the value. I love Park Hyatts and have stayed at several in Europe, like Paris and Istanbul, but I had never been to Milan and hear the Park Hyatt there is pretty swanky. So I made a compromise – two nights in Madrid and two in Milan, which met no resistance whatsoever.

Park Executive Suite at the Park Hyatt Milan.

Park Executive Suite at the Park Hyatt Milan.

The next step was booking the flights. I have a lot of Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, so I figured I’d end up transferring Amex points to British Airways Avios with the current 35% transfer bonus and booking non-stop Iberia flights or maybe even British Airways/Aer Lingus/Air Berlin flights or using Chase Ultimate Rewards points to transfer to United miles for any combination of Star Alliance flights either non-stop from Newark on United or via Germany/Switzerland/Austria/Belgium. You get the picture – there were lots of choices.

Transferring Amex points to Delta didn’t even cross my mind because I assumed no low-level availability would exist for two people on my dates since I wanted to travel with my friend from New York.

For several days I played around with ExpertFlyer and trying to work out availability, but nothing was coming available for our days, except maybe a couple wonky routings like New York-Toronto-Frankfurt-Madrid on the outbound. No thank you. Too much can go wrong and with such a short trip I wanted to make any connections as limited and bearable as possible.

I set a bunch of ExpertFlyer alerts for United and Iberia nonstops, but over the course of a week nothing opened up. Seeing as the trip is less than a month away, I was itching to get something booked which I could later optimize, but even the most basic routings were unavailable on my dates.

For the heck of it, I loaded up and to my astonishment there were two low-level awards on my most desired departure date on Delta on a newly configured 767 with lie-flat beds (1/2/1 seating on the seating chart vs 2/2/2. My heart started racing – could this be true? I’ve been burned by’s fantasy availability before, so I quickly went through a dummy booking and placed the awards on hold. Holy moly!

For the return, Alitalia had 1 seat available on a Sunday and one on a Monday for Milan to JFK. Monday was the desired date, but I figured I would book myself on Sunday and then set an ExpertFlyer alert and switch for free (since I am Delta Platinum) if the Monday flight ever opened up. In the meantime I’d continue checking the Delta non-stop on the same date, though I really want to try out Alitalia’s new business class on their A330 (I flew their 777 to Miami last year and while the seat was antiquated the service, food and amenities were really nice).

My Business class seat on Alitalias 777 when I flew it last

My Business class seat on Alitalia’s 777 when I flew it last year to Miami.

I put both awards on hold for 2+ days, which allowed me to do since I didn’t have enough miles in my account, and before they came due for actual ticketing Alitalia opened another seat on Monday. Score!

I changed my return to Monday and ticketed both seats. Delta allows you to have a stopover or open jaw, so for each of us I added in flights on Air Europa from Madrid to Milan to get us in between. I booked economy for now since there was nothing available in business class for the times we wanted, but I’m confident something will open up.

I want to try out Alitalia's new Magnifica business class.

I want to try out Alitalia’s new Magnifica business class.

So overall the tickets each cost 100,000 SkyMiles and $74.60 in taxes and fees and I get to experience lie-flat beds on both Delta and Alitalia, and have all flights included for the trip. Just out of curiosity, I looked up what a similar itinerary (minus the Air Europa flight) late in May would go for and it came out to the princely sum of $6,800 (not that I’d ever pay anywhere close to that!) so I feel even better about persevering until I found low-level availability on the flights I wanted.


Oh, and I was able to ask Hyatt to extend the expiration on my suite night, which was supposed to expire at the end of March, and apply it for the Saturday night in Milan, when suites were going for well over $1,000 USD. Overall, I’m happy as a clam and can’t wait for the trip.

So, next time you’re planning travel, don’t discount Delta, even if you’ve had issues with them in the past. And if anyone has any Milan recommendations, I’m all ears!

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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  • gary leff

    “I was able to ask Hyatt to extend the expiration on my suite night, which was supposed to expire at the end of March”

    They Diamond confirmed suite upgrades expire at the end of February – but without any favors can be applied before the end of February to reservations any time in the future that’s bookable.

  • Loren

    Transferring Amex points to Delta/KLM/Air France is the only way I got my husband and I to Germany for $400 RT total for both of us. I don’t have Delta status and we were in coach but the goal was getting there for the least amount of cash possible. The Amex reps are very cavalier about borrowing points!!! but almost all my Amex spend is business-reimbursed so I was pleased with the deal.

  • Goat Rodeo

    … even pesos have some value.

  • Goat Rodeo

    you can get them to extend these along with the free nights if you ask nicely. Ive got both of them extended in the past with little or no pain.

  • Michael Sinn

    I booked a round trip on Delta April 10th out of JFK to Rome. Returning April 15th. Business Class both ways. After looking for 5 days! I found an award for 100,000 per person business class per person. Most of time it gave be 200,000 or more for same business class. From Las Vegas it was 375,000 per ticket! I did this on my own. I even sent Brian a note asking if the 100,000 was a good deal..Of course it was! LOL Then I booked a round trip First class from Las Vegas for 90,000 for 2 people so 45,000 per ticket. So for 145,000 per ticket I got First and Business Class. I agree not to discount Delta and not look. You need to look at them it just take a bit more time. And if you use Expert flyer or maybe another service to find the low awards.

  • Michael Sinn

    My business class seats on Delta from JFK to Frankfurt was on 767 we had flat beds! Loved them. And the return on a Alitalia’s A330 direct from Rome to JFK also had flat beds. Overall I thought Delta gave better service and food then Alitalia. The Entertainment was a bit better on Alitalia’s system then Delta.

  • RSS

    I live in a Delta hub (DTW) and for years it has been easy to find low award availability Businnes class in Air France, direct from DTW to CDG (100000 miles). Lately I have seen Delta with a lot more availability in their planes also. I scored 2 round trip tickets to London last fall also for 100000 miles.

  • Santastico

    There are some discussion on the internet that Delta shows more low level awards to customers that have a Delta Amex card. What are your thoughts about that?

  • BartNY

    If I hadn’t been reading your blog for over a year now I would have suspected you are a Delta mole with all these subtle posts !!

    Have a cana for us at el tigre!

  • JMSL

    Wait, are you sure the return flight is on Alitalia metal? It does say “Flight 7602 Operated by DELTA AIR LINES”. I think that is a codeshare with DL161 on their 767.

  • JMSL

    D’oh – just realized that was the dummy booking for comparison, not your actual flights. Sorry!

  • Jacob

    In Milan, we really enjoyed both the Duomo (go up top to see the view from the roof and down to the ancient baptistry) and the Basilica San’Ambrogio where, amongst other things, you’ll see Ambrose himself lying in state.

  • Daryl-Atlanta

    I’ve been a Delta FF member since the program began and over those 30+ years I’ve redeemed >3 million miles on free tickets. Not once have I ever not found what I wanted and always at the lowest mileage rate with only one exception which was in 2005 when you could pay double and get last seat availability where I used 50K for a domestic ticket over Thanksgiving that was booked 24 hours before departure. Also, back when you could redeem 200K for roundtrip Air France Concorde flights, those were always available as well. I guess that I’ve been luckier than most with the ease of finding/booking free Delta FF tickets.

  • thepointsguy

    I wasn’t asking to extend a Diamond suite upgrade. It was a free suite night from the Hyatt Visa Card

  • David Ducore

    In November, I was able to secure 4 seats, Business class, using miles from Delta. I had to call them and was able to route MIA-JFK-CDG-FLO outbound and FLO-CDG-MIA return for 100,000 miles (all flights on Air France except MIA-JFK which is on Delta) and some taxes and a small fee for using the phone. On their website there was nothing available for less than 250,000 r/t. It never hurts to try. The Last Supper (end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan) is worth a visit.

  • Uri Hadelsberg

    Hi everyone,
    This is amazing to hear. I want to book Rome to NY round trip business class but can’t find anything for less than 230,000 miles on Delta’s website. What am I doing wrong then?
    Please help,



  • James Ward

    I recently booked LAX-PER-MEL, SYD-LAX all in business class (VA) for low level 150,000. This includes a stopover *and* an open jaw. It was all accomplished thanks to the information I’ve gained from your fantastic blog. Thanks Brian.

  • John777

    The PH Milan is fantastic. Piero, their guests services manager, is a great host. Enjoy!

  • Deborah

    With Delta you must be patient, look often, and look early for some flights. My goal is to get the most flights for free with my miles so I travel coach. I scored 2 tickets (60K ea) outbound PIH-SLC-CVG-CDG-ZUR and inbound AMS-CDG-ATL-SLC-PIH for this Christmas. The routing might seem crazy to some but PIH is a very small airport with 3 Delta flights a day to SLC. The only transatlantic flights I could find for my time period were to Paris but I did not want to go to Paris or stopover there (been there, didn’t want to go back). I used the trick of looking for separate flights from CDG to get me closer to my intended destination. Some how I accomplished all of this using Delta’s crappy website. We will spend 3 weeks exploring Austria, Germany, Belgium, and Holland. Tip-If you see something book it…it will be gone in a matter of minutes if you don’t. Also using Marriott credit card sign up bonuses for 5 nights free in Brussels and Club Carlson sign up bonuses for 2 free nights in Salzburg and 4 nights in Vienna.

  • Michael C.

    I had been looking this morning for low level tix from NYC to IST, ARN, and BRU, and what do you know? Low level biz class availability for ALL the routes! I was shocked but pretty damn excited

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  • Craig

    I had some Hyatt Visa Card nights last year and despite being a Diamond and calling numerous times and even speaking with a supervisor very nicely, they were totally unwilling to extend the expiration date by one month. I was surprised you and Goat Rodeo were able to do this. Maybe a new policy?

  • Matt

    Brian – quick question. How do you put the award ticket on hold for a few days while you transfer the miles? Can this be done through the website or you have to call? Thanks.

  • Michael Sinn

    I put my 100,000 mile tickets on hold while getting all miles needed. I had to transfer some amex points to Delta to compete the order. Its best to hold the ticket as the low level award can go away and not come back. and if it does it could be another route. I did mine online and did not call. It was real easy.

  • David

    Speaking of Madrid… I’ve got a couple of free weekends in Madrid on either side of a business trip… any suggestions for a solo traveler?

  • studd

    in milan go to the restaurants on top of the buildings next to the dumo, see the dumo and the people looking at the otherwise unattractive city. in milan the only attractive bldg is the dumo.
    there is a really good choco shop next to the dumo and near the galleria

  • Marlene Konkoly

    My nephew plays college basketball for Michigan, and I had a chance at the last minute to take flight to Atlanta to see the Final Four. I got an economy award for 32,500 miles. Not the lowest level, but close and at the very last minute to travel to a Delta hub at the tail end of Spring Break was pretty awesome.

  • Cody

    LAX-PER-MEL? VA flies LAX to PER? Surely this is a typo…How did you get over to Perth? I thought you could just use Delta Skymiles on Delta or V Australia, but not on Virgin Australia (Australia domestic) routes. I’ve redeemed 150,000 for SLC-LAX-SYD (roundtrip) in business, but could never get over to Perth without booking a separate ticket (20,000 miles on AA or BA)…Please let me know if USA to Perth is doable using Delta miles.

  • Herbert Kilpin

    Milan? Wander La Brera. Also Luini – don’t be put off by the long lines, it moves fast.

  • Tony

    How do you include a stopover on your online booking w/o having to cough up more miles from delta or any airline that would allow a stopover. Thank you for the help

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  • Shaahin Ghazaghian

    I am also flying on Air Europa in a few weeks (MAD to FCO) I keep getting emails asking me if I want to upgrade to Business class for a small fee… (75euros) Are the extras worth the 75euros?

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