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Where Should You Credit Delta Air Lines Flights?

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Now that Delta has switched to revenue-based earning, a lot of SkyMiles members are seeing fewer miles being credited to their accounts. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at some options for getting the most out of your future flights with Delta.

Last month, I looked at which frequent flyer programs offer good alternatives for crediting flights on United, in light of its recent move to a revenue-based mileage accrual model. But let’s not forget that it was Delta leading the pack toward this new way of earning miles with its 2015 SkyMilles program, which awards miles based on your ticket price and elite status level.

So today, I want to examine alternative mileage programs for Delta passengers. Just like before, I’m looking for programs that can help you earn elite status quickly, allow you to boost your miles with a co-branded credit card available in the US, and have a valuable award chart (frankly, any published award chart is an improvement at that this point, considering Delta doesn’t offer that anymore).

There’s a cost to crediting Delta flights elsewhere, but there’s also plenty to gain.

Why should you consider crediting your Delta flights to a partner?

About one year ago, Delta announced its 2015 SkyMiles program, featuring a new, revenue-based mileage accrual model, and a new 5-tier award chart. Delta also claimed that it would improve award availability at the lowest mileage levels (plural), and fix its online award booking calendar. When I looked at the SkyMiles program in January, I found that award availability had indeed improved in some ways, but that the award calendar was still a little buggy.

Then, just five weeks into 2015, Delta removed its award chart altogether without any notice to customers or the media before or afterwards. Other disturbing developments to the SkyMiles program included a supposed glitch by which Delta appeared to be charging Medallion members more for award redemptions, and the removal of saver awards less than three weeks out. Simply put, the SkyMiles program is becoming unpredictable, and many passengers would rather credit miles to a more stable program. And of course, the new revenue-based model will have winners and losers, and those who are coming out behind have every reason to jump ship.

With so much not to like about the SkyMiles program, you might wonder why not just fly another airline altogether? Delta’s PR team goes to great lengths to remind us that the airline is superior operationally, and that’s not just hyperbole. After the recent weather systems that disrupted air travel, it was clear to many travelers that Delta’s service recovery far outshined its rivals. Finally, if you’re a business traveler in cities like Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Salt Lake City, then you’re “hub captive” and have little choice when it comes to non-stop service to most cities.

Unless you frequently get upgraded on Delta, then you won’t be sacrificing many benefits by crediting your miles elsewhere.

How to make up for not having Delta Medallion status

The biggest drawback of crediting your miles from Delta flights to one of its partners is that you won’t earn Medallion status. Fortunately, there are other ways to earn most of those same benefits.

First, you can earn status on another SkyTeam carrier, since the alliance offers reciprocal benefit when flying other partner carriers. Better yet, the lowest tier of SkyTeam status (called SkyTeam Elite) offers most of the benefits of the higher tier SkyTeam Elite Plus. In contrast, the lower tier Star Alliance Silver status offers very few benefits, most of which are reserved for the higher tier Star Alliance Gold status. Here are the benefits you get with SkyTeam status:

SkyTeam Elite

  • Priority Baggage Handling
  • Extra Baggage Allowance
  • Priority Check-in
  • Preferred Seating
  • Priority Boarding
  • Priority Reservations Waitlist
  • Priority Airport Standby

SkyTeam Elite Plus (additional)

  • Lounge Access
  • Guaranteed Reservations on Sold-Out Flights

Another way to replicate the benefits of Delta Medallion status is to hold one of the Delta SkyMiles credit cards from American Express. The Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card, Platinum Delta SkyMiles card, and Delta Reserve card offer the first bag checked free for the cardholder and up to eight other passengers on the same reservation. These cards also offer Zone 1 priority boarding.

What you won’t receive without Medallion status is upgrades to first class. While this is a drawback, many companies have policies that allow employees to buy up to economy comfort, and Delta now monetizes first class by selling upgrades at check-in, which limits the likelihood of Medallion members getting those free upgrades anyway.

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There are plenty of SkyTeam partners you can credit miles to, but I don’t recommend many of them.

Where should you credit your miles?

There are plenty of SkyTeam carriers and other Delta partners to choose from; here are the criteria you should use when deciding where to bank your miles:

  • Mileage earning rate: Although other programs will credit miles based on the distance flown, the amount you earn will still vary based on the fare class in most cases.
  • Award chart. You want a program that will let you redeem miles for award travel at the same rate (or lower) compared to Delta.
  • Fuel surcharges. Unfortunately, most foreign programs impose fuel surcharges on award travel, so this must be a consideration.
  • Ease of earning elite status. Naturally you won’t earn SkyTeam status on non-alliance partners, so you should consider the effort required to earn status in those other programs, and whether the benefits are worthwhile.
  • Access to additional miles. Few of us still earn the bulk of our miles from actual travel, so it’s vital to find ways to supplement these miles with earnings from credit card spending and other partners. Some foreign programs offer credit cards to US residents. Thankfully, there are other credit card rewards programs that allow you to transfer points to foreign carriers.

Without further ado, here’s a list of programs you might consider, and my analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of each one.

Alaska

As a non-alliance partner, Mileage Plan members won’t earn SkyTeam status. Miles earned will be just 25-75% of miles flown in economy, which could be worse, but isn’t exactly inspiring. On the other hand, Alaska has a quality award chart and good partner selection. You can transfer miles in from Starwood Preferred Guest, and Bank of America has a co-branded card with decent benefits (and the occasional increased sign-up bonus).

Flying Blue

This program is used by Air France, Air Europa, Kenya Airways, KLM, and TAROM. Travelers earn Flying Blue Silver status (which grants Skyteam Elite status) after just 25,000 miles or 15 qualifying flights. Flying Blue Gold status is offered after 40,000 miles or 30 flights.

Mileage earned on Delta flights depends on the marketing and operating carriers, the distance flown, and the booking class. This can range from 0% on the most highly discounted fares to 25-100% on most fares. You can read all of the details here. Silver membership offers a 50% mileage bonus on SkyTeam flights, and Gold offers a 75% bonus, which can offset some of the reduced mileage levels.

While there’s no Flying Blue credit card offered in the United States, Flying Blue is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and Citi ThankYou Rewards. The award chart is reasonable, with business class tickets to Europe for 62,500 miles each way in business class. In addition, there are some quirks in the award travel zones, such as including Israel in the European zone and the Netherlands Antilles in North America (Saint Maarten, Abaco, Bonaire, and Curacao). Flying Blue Promo Awards occasionally offer exceptional value. Finally, Flying Blue includes many non-alliance partners, such as Alaska, Copa, GOL, Japan Airlines, and Jet Airways.

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Flying Blue is a strong option for crediting miles from Delta flights.

Aeroflot

This Russian carrier is a poor choice for crediting Delta flights for several reasons. It offers no credit card to US customers, nor does it have any transfer partners. Passengers can earn SkyTeam Elite status though the Silver level in the Aeroflot Bonus program, which requires 25,000 miles or 25 segments. Gold level offers SkyTeam Elite Plus, but requires 50,000 miles or 50 segments. Finally, Aeroflot’s award chart is pedestrian, with business class awards from North America to Europe for 120,000 to 150,000 round-trip (depending on your destination). Aeroflot also just introduced a new mileage earning chart that will offer at most 75% of miles for Delta flights booked in economy class.

Aerolíneas Argentinas

It would be difficult to recommend this carrier for all sorts of reasons, including no real award charts, no credit card or transfer partners, and a reputation for being a state run carrier that is very hard to deal with. Economy class flights generally earn 50-100% of the distance flown.

Aeroméxico

Aeromexico is a Membership Rewards transfer partner, and it does offer a credit card from US Bank. Delta miles are earned at 50-100% of the mileage flown according to this chart. That said, Aeromexico’s award chart is nothing special, and even domestic round-trip flights in economy class are 40,000 Kilometers (the metric system doesn’t appear to help us here).

Alitalia

There are two huge problems with this program. One, it makes booking partner awards nearly impossible, and two, the program itself will end on December 31, 2015, and all miles will disappear on June 30, 2016.

China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines

These programs are extremely difficult to navigate, and as best I can tell they don’t have such great award charts, so I don’t recommend them.

Czech Airlines

If this airline has charts for earning or redeeming miles with its OK Plus program, I can’t find them, so I certainly wouldn’t consider crediting my Delta flights there.

Garuda Indonesia

This generally ignored program was scrutinized after being added as a Citi ThankYou Rewards transfer partner last year, and the conclusion was that we could all continue ignoring it. Garuda does offer distance-based awards that are a bargain for short-haul flights, and you can earn SkyTeam Elite after just 10 flights or 10,000 miles, or Elite Plus after 30,000 miles or 30 flights. However, it’s incredibly difficult to redeem awards, since you have to visit a ticket office in person. That alone makes this program useless to most frequent flyers.

Korean Air offers flights to several US airports and connections from Seoul to Tokyo.
Korean Air SkyPass has some favorable spots in its award chart, but elite status won’t come easily, and booking can be a challenge.

Korean Air

On one hand, Korean Air’s SkyPass program has a few things going for it. First, it’s a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, and offers co-branded credit cards from US Bank. In addition, Korean Air is known for having great first class award availability, which you can’t access using Delta SkyMiles. Its new award chart places Hawaii within the United States zone, so flights on Delta or Alaska are the same as any other domestic flight at just 25,000 in economy and 45,000 in first. Another bargain is 80,000 miles from North America to Europe in business class.

The downside is that there are many discounted fare classes (such as L, U, and T) that don’t earn miles at all. You can see the sad details here. To make it worse, elite status in the Morning Calm club requires 50,000 miles, and at least 30,000 must be on Korean Air. Finally, booking awards is very difficult, and can only be done in the name of the member or an immediate family member. No cousins, friends, or unmarried partners allowed, even when traveling together!

Saudia

You might dismiss this option, but there are a few things that make it worth considering. First, Saudia is a Starwood transfer partner, and you can receive 100% of the miles flown in economy class, according to the Saudia accrual chart for Delta. Saudia’s award chart is mediocre, but not terrible. Business class flights to most of Europe are 100,000 miles and South America is only 90,000 miles. On the other hand, Asia in business class starts at 160,000 miles, and Australia and India are 200,000 miles or more.

Alfursan Silver Elite status gives you SkyTeam Elite after 25,000 miles or 20 international flights in a calendar year, after which you can maintain status with just 20,000 miles or 15 international sectors during the next calendar year. Gold membership for SkyTeam Elite Plus requires 50,000 Status Miles or 40 international sectors in one calendar year, and 40,000 Status Miles or fly 30 international sectors during the next calendar year.

Middle East Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, and Xiamen Airlines

I’ll exclude these carriers if only because there’s no way to supplement miles from a US credit card or transfer partner.

I have flown Virgin Atlantic economy class between the U.S. and London several times, and it's a comfortable way to cross the Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic is another strong option for crediting miles from Delta flights.

Virgin Atlantic

Update: Several readers pointed out that Virgin Atlantic would be a great option for crediting Delta miles (and one I originally neglected to mention). Indeed, Virgin Atlantic offers 75% of flown miles on L, U, and T fares (which are the typical discounted fares that many travelers purchase) and 100% of flown miles on higher fare classes. You can see Virgin Atlantic’s mileage earning and redemption charts for Delta here. Readers also pointed out that Virgin Atlantic does not add fuel surcharges to Delta award flights, which is a major advantage.

Virgin Atlantic has a pretty reasonable award chart, with round-trip awards for 40,000 miles in economy and 90,000 miles in business class to London Heathrow from Virgin’s gateways in Atlanta, New York, Boston, Detroit, and Minneapolis, as well as the Manchester-Atlanta flight. Delta flights to Europe and awards that consist of flights on both carriers are 60,000 in economy and 100,000 in business, round-trip.

Although Virgin Atlantic isn’t part of SkyTeam, other partners include Hawaiian, Singapore, South African, and of course, Virgin America and Virgin Australia. There are several benefits offered by reaching their elite levels, which you do by earning Tier points as follows: 1 per sector under 3,000 miles in economy class, 3 per sector over 3,000 miles in economy, 3 per sector under 3,000 miles in business, and 5 per sector over 3,000 miles in business.

Silver status is earned with 16 tier points, and offers a 50% mileage bonus on Virgin Atlantic and Delta flights, but doesn’t appear to have many other benefits when traveling on Delta. Gold status is earned after 60 tier points, so for most domestic economy class flights, it will take 30 round-trips. Gold status offers a 100% bonus on base miles flown with Virgin Atlantic and Delta, as well as first class upgrades on Delta, priority baggage handling, and lounge access.

When it comes to earning miles through credit card partners, Virgin Atlantic offers credit cards in the US through Bank of America. Also, you can transfer miles to Flying Club from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Overall, this is a very strong option for crediting Delta miles.

Conclusions

Virgin Atlantic and Flying Blue seem to be the best choices here thanks to transfer partner options, attainable elite status, and reasonable mileage earning rates. Surprisingly, the runner up is Saudia Airlines, which offers 100% of flown mileage, a few good deals on its award chart, and a transfer option from Starwood. Nevertheless, I’d spend some time investigating this program before committing to it, as there isn’t much information available. Finally, Korean could be worth considering if you tend to fly in booking classes that are eligible to earn miles.

Where do you plan to credit your Delta miles moving forward?

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