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