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How To Maximize Delta SkyMiles for Valuable Awards

by on August 12, 2014 · 34 comments

in American Express, Delta, skyteam

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Update: Some of the offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here:Gold Delta SkyMilesPlatinum Delta SkyMilesDelta Reserve Credit Card.

They keys to a successful miles and points strategy are to diversify your balances (especially in programs that have numerous transfer partners), and to educate yourself on the ins and outs of each program. As I write about each month with my monthly miles/points valuation series, some currencies are much stronger than others. That being said, the value of your miles depends greatly on how you redeem them.

I know people who reap thousands of dollars worth of value a year from the Southwest Companion Pass, yet I’d get almost no value from it because Southwest doesn’t really fly where I go and I often travel solo. In a similar vein, it’s no doubt that SkyMiles have been among the fastest declining currencies in the frequent flyer sphere, but they’re far from worthless.

Earlier this summer I redeemed SkyMiles for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class- spending a fraction of the money Virgin Atlantic charges their own frequent flyers for awards

Earlier this summer I redeemed SkyMiles for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class- spending a fraction of the money Virgin Atlantic charges their own frequent flyers for awards

New, Big Bonuses
Earlier today I wrote about the increased sign-up bonuses for the Delta SkyMiles Gold card from American Express (50,000 miles when you spend $1,000 in 3 months and a $50 statement credit on your first Delta purchase within 3 months for both the personal and business versions), and the Delta SkyMiles Platinum card from American Express (15,000 MQM’s and 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 in 3 months, plus a $100 statement credit on your first Delta purchase within 3 months). With these new offers available, I thought it was time to take a look at the current state of the SkyMiles program and ways you can maximize it (yes, SkyMiles still have value!), especially if you’re considering getting in on either or both of these offers.

SkyMiles Still Matter

Delta has long been the scourge of the frequent flyer world. Even before recent award chart changes and the airline’s announcement that a new revenue-based system of earning frequent flyer miles will take effect in 2015, many points and miles enthusiasts have denounced the program as lacking value, and derisively dubbed SkyMiles as “SkyPesos” for years.

Many complaints centered around the difficulty of finding saver-level awards on popular routes and partners, as well as constraints like having to book roundtrip awards (or rather, that you pay the same amount of miles whether you book roundtrip or one-way) and the inability to use Delta miles for first class awards on partner airlines like Korean Air and Air France.

However, despite some obvious limitations, Delta SkyMiles can still be a very useful mileage currency; they’ve certainly held great value for me personally (and saved my you-know-what) on more than one occasion.

Delta is a 1:1 transfer partners of Amex Membership Rewards.

Delta is a 1:1 transfer partners of Amex Membership Rewards.

Transfer Partners

One major factor to consider when discussing Delta SkyMiles is that the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards (the points program of cards like the Amex Platinum and Premier Rewards Gold cards) and Starwood Preferred Guest, which gives you a 5,000-mile bonus on 20,000-point transfers, effectively making the transfer ratio 1:1.25 if you’re strategic about it.

Both programs make it easy to top up your Delta account without having to rack up miles the old-fashioned way (by flying!), and thus make the program a bit more flexible than some competitors like American or Alaska, which are only transfer partners of SPG.

A New Award Chart

Delta has announced that it will be implementing a new five-tiered award structure come 2015, though details are still sketchy. To me, that means that there will be more mid- and high-level awards available, though likely not more low-level/saver availability. There are some positives too, including the introduction of one-way awards for half the price of roundtrip.

Also, from the award chart Delta has released so far, with mileage based on departing the Continental US, Alaska and Canada, the lowest saver level awards in both economy and business class will remain almost entirely the same, and even go down in a few cases (Middle East and South Asia in economy, Northern South America in business). But as I said, we still know very little about how many of each tier of awards will be available.

So in terms of maximizing Delta SkyMiles, it’s best to book whatever travel you can as soon as possible, since it’s unclear what the coming changes will mean to future redemptions come January 1, 2015.

Last-Minute Awards

One of the bright spots in the Delta SkyMiles program is the fact that the airline does not charge last-minute award-booking fees. That means you can book a flight within hours of departure without having to worry about tacking on the $75 that other legacies like American, United and US Airways charge non-elite passengers. Once one-way awards become available, this will be even more useful when deciding which mileage currency to use last minute- which is usually when the most saver level availability exists.

Not only that, but as with many frequent flyer programs, some of the best saver-level awards tend to open up at the last minute – as happened when TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen’s Australia trip very nearly got derailed last February and he was able to rebook on Virgin Australia using Delta miles within a matter of hours of his new flight – so not having to worry about extra fees can be a real relief.

Take advantage of Delta's SkyTeam partners.

Take advantage of Delta’s SkyTeam partners.

Partner Airlines

Delta is a member of the SkyTeam Alliance, which recently expanded to include new member Garuda Indonesia, and now has 20 airlines total, including Air France KLM, Alitalia, Korean Air and Vietnam Airlines. Not only that, but Delta also partners with non-alliance airlines like Alaska, Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic, so there are many opportunities to maximize your miles.

Top Awards to Book

Though Delta did raise many of its award pricing levels this year, there are still some good redemption opportunities that can save you both miles and cash. Here are a few of the top options.

Virgin Atlantic to London: Virgin Atlantic is one of Delta’s non-alliance partners, which means you can earn and redeem Delta miles on Virgin flights, and there are some instances when it makes a lot of sense to do so. Like British Airways, Virgin levies huge fuel surcharges and taxes on flights to/from the UK, while Delta does not, even on Virgin flights. For instance, this roundtrip business class award in February on Virgin Atlantic would cost you 125,000 Delta miles plus $330 in taxes/fees.

By using Delta miles to fly to London, you can save hundreds of dollars.

By using Delta miles to fly to London, you can save hundreds of dollars.

On the other hand, Virgin Atlantic would charge you 80,000 miles for the same flights, but $1,160 on top of that!

Virgin's taxes and fees are through the roof!

Virgin’s taxes and fees are through the roof!

So you would be spending 45,000 more Delta miles than Virgin Atlantic miles, but saving $830 (a value of about 1.85 cents per mile); that might be worthwhile if you’re looking to save cash and are sitting on a pile of SkyMiles.

Using Delta miles to get to Australia is a great redemption option.

Using Delta miles to get to Australia is a great redemption option.

Virgin Australia to Australia With Low Taxes/Fees: Given how much tickets to Australia can cost, one of the best uses of Delta miles in my opinion is to redeem them for flights from the US to Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane on Delta’s partner airline Virgin Australia. Even better, you can search for Virgin Australia award availability on Delta.com. By using SkyMiles, you avoid paying about $500 on coach awards and $800+ on business class awards. Award availability on these routes can be tight, but space does tend to open up either far in advance or at the very last minute (sometimes on the day of travel). Here’s a sample business class roundtrip, outbound on Virgin and returning on Delta, in business class for 160,000 miles and $136 in taxes and fees.

Use Delta miles to fly on Alaska to Hawaii...while you still can.

Use Delta miles to fly on Alaska to Hawaii…while you still can.

Alaska Airlines to Hawaii: Delta and Alaska are duking out it out for supremacy on the West Coast, but, at least for the moment, the two airlines are still partners. However, Delta is no longer partners with Hawaiian Airlines, so one of the best ways to use your SkyMiles is by redeeming them for flights on Alaska’s extensive route network from various cities on the West Coast to Hawaii’s major destinations, including Honolulu, Maui and Kauai. Delta will charge you 5,000 more miles for a roundtrip coach redemption (45,000 miles versus just 40,000 miles on Alaska) for using its own miles, or the same 80,000 miles roundtrip in first class. However, I value Alaska miles much more highly than Delta SkyMiles thanks to their ease of redemption, a better award chart, and top-shelf partners that include Cathay Pacific and Emirates, so I’d rather burn a few thousand extra SkyMiles and save my Alaska miles for those redemptions instead.

That Alaska ticket would cost you over $1,400.

That Alaska ticket would cost you over $1,400.

In this example, it would cost 80,000 Delta miles plus $11 in taxes/fees for a roundtrip first class award flight from San Jose to Maui, while Alaska would charge you $1,450 to buy the same ticket – a value of about 1.8 cents per mile.

Take advantage of Aerolineas Argentinas's extensive route network.

Take advantage of Aerolineas Argentinas’s extensive route network.

Intra-South America Flights on Aerolineas Argentina: Aerolineas Argentinas partnered with Delta and joined SkyTeam back in 2012. While the airline doesn’t offer many flights to the US – just between Buenos Aires and Miami or New York (JFK) – it does have an extensive route network within South America, where flights can get very expensive even on short hauls like Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls or Mendoza to Santiago (which can be as high as $500-$800 in some cases!). Putting your SkyMiles to use on these routes can be a great way to save money. Delta will charge you 25,000 roundtrip in economy and 40,000 in business class. Redeeming SkyMiles for Aerolineas flights can be a bit of a challenge, and requires a call into Delta, but check out this post for tips on using Delta miles to book Aerolineas awards.

You can use Delta SkyMiles to fly the China Southern A380.

China Southern is a great option for getting to Asia using SkyMiles.

China Southern to Asia: One of SkyTeam’s strengths is its variety of Asian airline partners, including this behemoth based in Guangzhou. China Southern’s rapidly expanding route network and the general profusion of award availability on its service from LA to Guangzhou make it a very good option for redeeming SkyMiles to get to Asia (especially since you can now spend up to 72 hours transiting through Guangzhou without a visa before continuing on to another country). Economy awards are 70,000 miles roundtrip, and business class awards are 140,000 miles. You can use ExpertFlyer to search for award space before calling Delta.

Use ExpertFlyer to search Air Tahiti Nui award space.

Use ExpertFlyer to search Air Tahiti Nui award space.

Air France or Air Tahiti Nui to Tahiti: If booking an award to Tahiti is your goal, SkyMiles are probably the best option because Delta partners with both the major carriers that fly there from the US: Air France and Air Tahiti Nui. Just keep in mind that redemptions are not cheap. You need 100,000 miles roundtrip in economy or 160,000 miles roundtrip in business class. Delta.com is pretty unreliable at showing partner availability here, so I would suggest using ExpertFlyer instead, where you can look for awards on both Air Tahiti Nui and Air France, and which will show you accurate award space that you can then call to book. Taxes and fees tend to be about $50 on either partner.

Booking Tips

One of the longtime pitfalls of booking Delta awards has been the poor quality of its online award search engine. Though Delta has added some partner availability in recent years, including Korean Air and Virgin Australia, the award search is still pretty terrible to navigate, and in order to get those high-value, low-level awards, you really have to put in some legwork. Here are a couple tips.

Use ExpertFlyer: ExpertFlyer is a great resource that allows you to search for award seats by airline, flight, class and a variety of other criteria. You can set alerts to let you know when that seat you’ve been waiting for finally opens up, so you can snag it before anyone else. For more information, check out my post on using ExpertFlyer to search and book awards.

Call for availability: Like I said, the online search engine still sucks, so once you find your award seats, you might have to call in to book the flights you want. Just remember, agents are not always the best at finding awards, so have as much information on hand as possible.

Be flexible on routing: Delta has tons of hubs in the US, including Atlanta, New York (both JFK and LGA), Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Seattle, so you have lots of routing options and can choose to fly out of one hub instead of another depending on award availability as long as you’re flexible with your routing.

Conclusion

Despite major changes to the SkyMiles program (as well as ongoing gripes against it), there are still plenty of ways to squeeze value out of Delta’s mileage program. Not only can you earn miles from co-branded credit card bonuses like the current high ones, but Delta also has good partner options. With some strategic planning, you can still redeem your Delta miles for some great, high-value awards.

For more info and strategies for maximizing Delta SkyMiles, check out these posts:

Top 11 Ways to Redeem Delta SkyMiles
Taking a Deeper Look at Delta’s New Mileage Earning Structure for 2015 and Beyond
Why I Can’t Fully Quit Delta: My Positive Experience Upgrading with SkyMiles
Can You Transfer Delta SkyMiles to Alaska Airlines?

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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  • http://www.LiveSmartNotHard.com/ Steve | LiveSmartNotHard.com

    Agreed. The deals are there if you know where to look. I’m taking a roundtrip flight from New York to Hawaii this winter using Delta points and $10 in taxes.

  • btonetbone

    I’m pretty frustrated with Delta Skymiles. I was looking to book a flight over Thanksgiving weekend from ATL to PHX, and they wanted to charge my wife and myself 60,000 miles each for a roundtrip ticket. Absolutely absurd. And with the Delta AmEx card, I only earn 1 mile per dollar (unless I’m spending directly on Delta tickets, which – in my opinion – is kind of anathema to rewards travel), I’d have to spend $120,000 on that credit card to earn the flight. Looking at buying the tickets outright, it’d cost me $471 each round trip ticket. Based on my calculations, those Skymiles I earn by being a loyal Delta customer are worth a measly $0.0078 each. What a lousy, lousy rewards program. Screenshots of my desired itinerary are attached.

  • Angel

    Aerolineas Argentinas also flies to New York from Buenos Aires…. you might want to add that :)

  • Steve T

    Brian:
    You missed one of the most valuable benefits of skymiles. It is the only domestic carrier that permits a free stopover (Provided its on the routing) on a domestic award ticket. Its tricky to book, first select flights and mileage level via round trip award and then book the flights via a multi city award. Next month I am flying LAX-JFK for a few days, then JFK-SAV (for the frugal travel guy bootcamp), the Savannah to LAX all for 25,000 skymiles. Cannot do it with any other airline.
    Steve T

  • http://www.thepointsguy.com PR@TPG

    Thanks, added!

  • Santastico

    Delta has the worst FF program. They are “the evil airline” when it comes to find ways to screw up their customers. I am “forced” to fly Delta almost 90% of the time due to my home airport being a Delta hub but as soon as I have enough miles to redeem for “something” I just burn them. I don’t trust Delta for second so will never keep their miles to fulfill a potential dream award.

  • Mike Smith

    Can you tell me which credit card to sign up for that supposedly gives me a slightly better chance of getting an upgrade on Delta? I’m Silver right now, so it probably won’t make a difference.

  • Garrett

    “I was looking to book a flight over Thanksgiving weekend…” But what was the expectation? That’s the single-busiest domestic travel period. I’m sure that flight was for some family stuff or something, but there are usually dirt cheap business fares to Europe (Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Air France) around that time. Last year I paid $2200 for from Los Angeles to Amsterdam in KLM new world business. Maybe take some time off for a nice husband ‘n wife vacation? :)

  • https://twitter.com/ProfCharlotte Charlotte (TYR)

    So if you book an award on Virgin Australia through Delta (using Skymiles), how does one login to the Virgin Australia website to check on the flight? VA does not allow anyone with a US address to join Velocity.

  • btonetbone

    “But what was the expectation?” The expectation was something a bit closer to the other airlines. A quick search shows that United can do the same time for 35,000 miles and US Airways can do it for 50,000. And while I’d love to take some extra time off, unfortunately our jobs don’t always have that flexibility around holidays. Yes, that trip is to visit my sister-in-law, who we haven’t seen in a while and recently got engaged.

  • Alvin (DTW)

    I’ve currently had the Delta Gold card for 2 years. Am I able to reapply for this card for the 50,000 point off at this time? Or is it a one and done?

  • Danny

    Amex’s policy is one bonus per card per lifetime. So you’ll never be able to get another bonus on the Delta Gold card. You could get the Delta Platinum card, as it is considered a different product.

  • Photo Safari Enthusiast

    I was looking at booking two business class award tickets through a Delta partner to JNB or CPT. Seems that the only way to get to South Africa is via ATL direct on Delta metal.

    I used to be able to see flights to Europe via KLM, Al Italia, Air France and Virgin Atlantic. Now it is just Delta and Virgin Atlantic, and the business only on Delta.

    They system no longer shows anything to get to JNB from Europe.

    Haas there been a change to the Skyteam Alliance?
    Does Delta not allow trips to South Africa on partner/Alliance planes?

  • http://www.thepassportlifestyle.com/ Stephanie

    I hate how all the major airlines are changing/have changed their FF programs. It used to be easy and straightforward to earn miles. Now we have to determine the booking class, check the fares, do comparisons, and do the math.
    Stephanie | http://www.thepassportlifestyle.com

  • dhammer

    I think you just talked me out of applying for the credit card. Appreciate the review.

  • Brian

    Steve, the deals are not there – I am done with Delta. Just redeemed 100,000 Alaska miles to go from Montana to Denpasar Bali and back in Cathay Pacific Business Class ($8,000 ticket). My last two Delta redemptions were non-peak domestic travel ($500 tickets) at 60,000 miles each. Even if you have to fly Delta, bank your miles to Alaska Airlines!

  • Brian

    That’s 8 cents per mile on Alaska, 0.8 cents per on Delta. 10 times the value flying Alaska Air!

  • Gisele

    “One major factor to consider when discussing Delta Skymiles is that the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards…”
    So, what I understand from this is that you can transfer your Delta SkyMiles to Amex Membership Rewards and vice versa. Is that correct? I’d love to transfer my skymiles to Amex Membership Rewards!

  • thepointsguy

    You can only transfer Amex to delta- not the other way around

  • thepointsguy

    Delta reserve card puts you higher on the medallion upgrade list

  • BobChi

    I must agree. I’ve been sitting on over 100,000 Delta miles for a couple of years now, adamantly declining to redeem them on their vastly inflated award levels, but then finding the miles unusable because there are no saver seats. On one international route I was checking about a week ago, I found two dates in all the first half of 2015 available with Delta miles, and 106 dates available with United miles. I can’t imagine why the typical flyer wouldn’t automatically bank Delta flights to Alaska. That program is really far more valuable.

  • Judge Smails

    Delta USED to be awesome for even it’s “lowly” Silver members. Can remember reserving transatlantic upgrades with miles only to have them give me the upgrade without taking away a single mile–that happened on at least two occasions. Don’t know if that was an anomaly, but it was pretty classy and very much appreciated–especially when AA at same time was charging me 25K miles AND an outrageous co-pay–something like $350 to upgrade. So, I guess a throw back thank you to Delta is due.

  • Gisele

    Oh, shucks! Thanks anyway.

  • Lindsay

    Can anyone tell me what counts as a “Delta purchase”? Is it flights only? Or can it be something like baggage fees or upgrades to economy comfort on a flight that is already booked? I would love to get in on this for 50k points.

  • Don Juan

    Sounds like Delta is a worthless card to have as well as fly….

  • what airline program

    I just started becoming a traveler — should I go with dleta as my airline of choice? Can I use an SPG card and get delta points?

  • http://thehustleblog.com/ The #hustle Blog

    Does anyone know if Delta is still blocking CZ availability? Last time I called (a few months ago), I could see plenty of space via Expert Flyer but of course several agents couldn’t “see it.”

  • BobChi

    Do you live in Atlanta or the Twin Cities? You might have to use Delta. Otherwise, if you’re interested in frequent flyer programs, as opposed to just flights for their own sake, you don’t want Delta. SPG points are worth a whole lot more than Delta Points. Bad trade.

  • Brian

    I just burned 800,000 sky miles for 4 first class tickets to Venice. At over $5,000 a ticket it was a value of 2.6 cents per mile. Is that a good play to use that many miles?

  • Dizzy

    Thanks for this article. I will be doing a trip in 2015, one of the deals from earlier this year on Delta/Alitalia/KLM to Central Europe and Japan. Looks like best place to dump those miles without losing them is Delta. I’m glad to see there might actually be some uses of the infamous Sky Pesos!

  • Batt2

    TPG, I have seen a few posts, this one included, where you have found business class award seats on Virgin Atlantic on Delta.com. I have searched hundreds of itineraries and have yet to find anything other than economy on Virgin Atlantic. What am I doing wrong?

  • Flor c

    I have 250,000 pts with amex and wandering how to use these points to travel to Australia from la in business class, I tried booking with delta and they want 400,000 pts. Is there any other way to use these points to travel lax to Australia or lax to Brazil via business class using the Amex 250,000 points?

  • Puritan

    first class? what airline?

  • Brian

    Delta.

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