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While Delta tends to offer a quality product, its frequent flyer program has been much maligned in recent years. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains why SkyMiles still have plenty of value, even if they don’t measure up to many other loyalty currencies.

Delta SkyMiles have long been derisively referred to as “SkyPesos” due to their many limitations, including terrible domestic award availability and the inability to redeem them for first-class seats on partner airlines. The program tanked even further with two award chart devaluations and the implementation of a revenue-based earning scheme. The nickname was demoted to “SkyRubles,” and many frequent flyers (myself included) have effectively ditched Delta.

However, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom at the world’s second-largest airline. The SkyMiles program now allows one-way bookings (finally!) and has added a (mostly) functioning award calendar. Delta.com also now shows a much larger group of partner airlines for award booking, making it easier for members to redeem their miles. In addition, several co-branded Delta Amex cards are offering increased sign-up bonuses this month, so SkyMiles are easier to earn at the moment as well.

In this post I’ll cover what I think are the top five Delta redemptions to demonstrate that while your SkyMiles may be worth less, they’re still far from worthless.

Delta may have removed award charts from its website, but the program still has a lot of terrific redemption options.
Delta may have removed award charts from its website, but the program still has a lot of terrific redemption options.

An important point to remember is that when you redeem your Delta miles on partners, the awards automatically price out at the lowest rate (Level 1). This is especially helpful to know since Delta recently pulled the award charts from its website. I sometimes search for awards on routes that Delta shares with a partner (e.g., New York-JFK to London-Heathrow), and in virtually all cases, the flights on Delta metal are priced much higher than those operated by partners.

The following partners are helping to keep the SkyMiles program interesting:

Virgin Atlantic 787-9 Dreamliner
Your SkyMiles certainly aren’t worthless when redeemed on Virgin Atlantic flights!

Virgin Atlantic to the UK (and beyond)

Back in 2013, Delta and Virgin Atlantic announced a new partnership that included the ability to earn and redeem SkyMiles on Virgin Atlantic flights. That agreement has included expanded service this summer, which is perfectly timed for those of you wishing to burn some SkyMiles. Currently, you can fly on Virgin Atlantic nonstop from the US to several UK cities:

  • London-Heathrow from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago-O’Hare, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York-JFK, San Francisco and Washington-Dulles;
  • London-Gatwick from Las Vegas and Orlando;
  • Manchester from Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Orlando;
  • Glasgow from Las Vegas and Orlando;
  • Belfast from Orlando.

A round-trip economy ticket on Virgin Atlantic to the UK will set you back 60,000 miles plus about $150 to $200 in taxes and fees. A round-trip Upper Class award ticket costs 125,000 miles plus about $300 in taxes and fees. The added costs are almost entirely due to government-imposed taxes and fees; using SkyMiles allows you to avoid Virgin’s notoriously high fuel surcharges.

Availability varies by departure city, but I was able to find a number of great options:

JFK to London in economy, July
JFK to London in economy, July 10-17
Boston to London in business class,
Boston to London in Upper Class, July 20-27
Miami to London in Upper Class, August 21-31
Miami to London in Upper Class, August 21-31
Las Vegas to Glasgow in economy, September 17-24
Las Vegas to Glasgow in economy, September 17-24
Atlanta to Manchester in Upper Class (for three passengers!), November 12-21
Atlanta to Manchester in Upper Class (for three passengers!), November 12-21

Overall trends: Traveling in economy class is relatively easy; the vast majority of gateways only have a handful of dates without availability (especially into the fall). Upper Class space is a little harder to find, but certainly not impossible! With some flexibility in your dates, you should be able to find a routing that works.

Be sure to check out TPG’s review of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class from London to New York earlier this year.

dsa
Air Tahiti Nui is another terrific redemption option for SkyMiles.

Air France and/or Air Tahiti Nui to French Polynesia

Another great use of SkyMiles is award flights from the US to Tahiti, as Delta partners with both carriers that operate nonstop flights from LAX-PPT: Air France and Air Tahiti Nui. ExpertFlyer will be your best friend when it comes to searching this route, since both carriers list award inventory there:

ExpertFlyer award availability for Air Tahiti Nui next March; SkyMiles members should have access to this space (though you'll need to call to book).
ExpertFlyer award availability for Air Tahiti Nui next March; SkyMiles members should have access to this space (though you’ll need to call to book).

You’ll need the following fare classes to book award travel using SkyMiles:

  • Air France — X (coach) or O (business)
  • Air Tahiti Nui — W (coach) or I (business)

A round-trip economy award on these carriers will set you back 100,000 miles plus taxes and fees. A round-trip business-class award costs 160,000 miles plus taxes and fees. Unfortunately, business-class availability on Air France is essentially nonexistent on this route, but Air Tahiti Nui does have decent award inventory (and economy awards are relatively plentiful on both carriers).

Generally speaking, you can book Air France awards on Delta.com, but you’ll need to call for Air Tahiti Nui awards. However, I struggled a bit to match ExpertFlyer results with Delta’s results. Some of the few business-class seats I found on ExpertFlyer didn’t show up when I searched on Delta.com, and many of the economy seats were off as well. I was still able to piece together a few itineraries:

Los Angeles to Papeete in business class, June 9
Los Angeles to Papeete one-way in business class (for two passengers), June 9
Los Angeles to Papeete in economy, January 30-February 14
Los Angeles to Papeete round-trip in economy, January 30-February 14

Overall trends: As I mention above, you’ll be hard-pressed to find business class award availability on Air France, though I was able to find a few seats here and there. Economy awards are more plentiful, though still limited. Air Tahiti Nui has much better availability for both business- and economy-class redemptions, though I recommend trying to book as far in advance as possible.

Keep in mind that ExpertFlyer allows you to set alerts on these flights so you can watch for availability and book (or rebook) when seats open up.

Korean Air offers flights to several US airports and connections from Seoul to Tokyo.
Award seats on Korean’s A380 are within reach using Delta SkyMiles.

Korean Air Business Class to Asia

Another great SkyMiles redemption (and also one that appears on Delta.com) is Korean Air to Asia. This SkyTeam carrier has its hub in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, and nonstop destinations in the US include Atlanta, Chicago-O’Hare, Los Angeles, New York-JFK, San Francisco and Washington-Dulles.

Unfortunately Korean does impose blackout dates for redeeming SkyMiles:

2015

  • May 15 – June 30
  • July 17 – August 23
  • September 25 – 30
  • Oct 9 – 11
  • December 10 – 31

2016

  • January 1 – 3
  • February 5 – 11
  • February 27 – March 1
  • May 5 – 8
  • May 13 – June 30
  • July 15 – August 21
  • September 13 – 19
  • September 30 – October 3
  • December 9 – 31

That means that just under 40% of the year is blacked out for redemptions, mainly during the summer and around the holidays. That still leaves a number of dates available for getting to South Korea and connecting from there to numerous other destinations throughout Asia.

A round-trip economy ticket will set you back 70,000 miles for North Asia, or 80,000 miles for Southeast Asia (plus taxes and fees). A round-trip business-class award ticket costs 140,000 miles plus taxes and fees. These tickets should all be bookable on Delta.com. Here are some sample itineraries I was able to find:

New York to Seoul in business class (on the A380!), September 10-19
New York to Seoul in business class (on the A380!), September 10-19
Los Angeles to Bali in economy, February 14-26
Los Angeles to Bali in economy, February 14-26
San Francisco to Hong Kong in business class over Thanksgiving, November 20-30
San Francisco to Hong Kong in business class over Thanksgiving, November 20-30

Overall trends: New York-JFK and Los Angeles tend to have the best availability (due to multiple daily flights), but I was able to find some great options from other US gateways as well. Unfortunately, the blackout dates do restrict availability to specific times of the year.

Be sure to check out Eric Rosen’s review of Korean’s A380 Prestige business class to see what you’d enjoy onboard some of these flights.

Virgin Australia logo
Virgin Australia flights represent another great use of SkyMiles.

Virgin Australia to Australia

A fourth terrific partner redemption using SkyMiles is on Virgin Australia flights down under. Delta flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Sydney, but low-level availability is scarce. Fortunately, Virgin Australia releases a good amount of award space on its nonstop flights out of Los Angeles to Brisbane (its Sydney flight is easy to come by in economy, but not so much in business).

A round-trip economy ticket will set you back 100,000 miles plus taxes and fees, while a round-trip business-class ticket costs 160,000 miles plus taxes and fees. These flights are also bookable on Delta.com.

Here are some sample itineraries I was able to find:

Los Angeles to Sydney in economy, September 9-23
Los Angeles to Sydney in economy, September 9-23
Los Angeles to Brisbane in business class, November 11-26
Los Angeles to Brisbane in business class, November 11-26
Los Angeles to Sydney in business class, February 2-16
Los Angeles to Sydney in business class, February 2-16
Los Angeles to Auckland in business class, March 16-31
Los Angeles to Auckland in business class, March 16-31

Overall trends: If you want to travel in business class, Brisbane is the way to go (unless you have a lot of flexibility). Economy awards are more readily available through both gateways. Consider adding a connection within the Southwest Pacific as a “free” add-on flight. Availability in both economy and business class is excellent on connecting flights to destinations such as Nadi (Fiji) and Perth (Australia).

The partnership between Delta and GOL opens up many new South American routes for SkyMiles redemptions.
The partnership between Delta and GOL opens up many new South American routes for SkyMiles redemptions.

GOL for Flights within South America

A final fantastic use of SkyMiles is for flights within South America on Delta’s partner GOL. Availability is terrific in both economy and business class, and the awards are bookable on Delta.com. Round-trip economy-class tickets will set you back 25,000 miles plus taxes and fees, while round-trip business-class awards cost 50,000 miles plus taxes and fees.

Here are a couple of itineraries I found:

Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires in business class, August 14-22
São Paulo to Buenos Aires in business class, August 14-22
Sao Paulo to Manaus in economy, October 10-17
São Paulo to Manaus in economy, October 10-17

Overall trends: Availability on these routes is pretty fantastic across the board, so you should be able to book the flights you want on the dates you need. However, be sure to check the cost of purchasing a ticket outright rather than redeeming miles. On some shorter routes, I see round-trip revenue flights for under $100. At 25,000 miles, that’s just 0.4 cents per mile of value, far short of TPG’s most recent valuations.

Bottom Line

SkyMiles is the loyalty program that many love to hate, and this chorus of negativity has only swelled with the airline’s most recent changes (including removing award charts from its website and expansion of its basic economy fares). However, Skymiles as a currency are far from worthless, and hopefully this post has given you some suggestions for putting those miles to good use. If you’re looking for ways to earn more SkyMiles, The increased sign-up bonuses Amex is currently offering on the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card, Gold Delta SkyMiles Business Credit Card and Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express are all great ways to boost your account balance and take advantage of these options!

What are your favorite SkyMiles redemptions?

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