How to Book a Delta SkyMiles Award
Over the next couple weeks, I'm going to be assembling basic guides on the major frequent flyer programs. Since I know Delta best, I'll start there and continue to edit it with more information as time goes on. If you have any questions, post them in the comments box and I'll update them in the thread. Hopefully we can all create a constantly evolving source of information on the best way to redeem SkyMiles.
Alliance: Delta is a founding member of the Skyteam Alliance. Partner members include Air France, Alitalia, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Europa, China Southern, Czech, Kenya, KLM, Korean, TAROM, Vietnam, and future members are China Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas, Saudi Arabian, and Garuda Indonesia.
Other partners: Alaska Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas, Avianca, China Airlines, China Eastern, Gol, Hawaiian, Jet, Kingfisher, Malaysia, V Australia
The Delta Skymiles program is unique in that it has three tiers of awards: low, medium, and high. You can mix and match awards, but the system prices then are a la carte. For flights originating in the US, the award chart can be found here. You'll notice only coach and business class awards can be booked using Skymiles. Premium economy and first class awards on Skyteam partners are not allowed. All partner awards are booked at the lowest tier, however, if you add a domestic Delta leg that is in medium to a low level partner award, the award automatically charges as a roundtrip low + roundtrip medium - which can insanely increase the price of your award.
One way awards:
The award chart is misleading in that it shows flights as one-ways, but one way awards do not cost half the price of a roundtrip - they cost the full amount. However, if you want to buy a one way award in business class from the US to Europe, instead of paying 100,000 miles for a low tier award, you can add on a fake return on a low coach day and get the award for 80,000 miles instead (1/2 of a 100,000 business and 1/2 of a 60,000 coach).
How to book awards:
The Delta.com award calendar and booking engine is broken. No way around it - they may have been dressing it up lately, but at a core level the system does not function properly. When the calendar shows "low" dates, you may pull up the award and it will actually price out at a medium level. Some days that show medium, may actually price to low when you click through.
Delta.com can book some Skyteam partner awards (like Air France, KLM and Air Europa), but they won't always show up on the calendar. I'll explain the best ways to find partner award availability in a separate section.
Delta is a maddening system that can be somewhat tamed if you know the tricks of the trade:
Trick 1: use the one way search to sniff out the segments that are truly low.
Trick 2: do not let the engine "think" for you. Don't search SAN-LHR and say a prayer it will find the perfect routing at the low level. Use trick #1 and search leg by leg for the low segments. For example, SAN-LAX, and then LAX- ATL, then ATL-LHR. It is a time consuming approach, but is the only real way to find low level segments.
Trick 3: once you find all of the segments you want, piece them them together using the multi-city search. This method is pretty reliable, just make sure to write down the flight numbers of the flights that have low availability.
Trick 4: try calling Delta and asking an agent for help. Some agents (especially Platinum and Diamond lines) can be helpful and they have better search tools. Although some people have reported being kicked off the phone for spending too much time with an agent, so your experience may vary. If you happen to get a savvy agent, use them for all they are worth!
Booking Skyteam and partner awards:
There are several tools that will help you identify actual Skyteam award inventory.
Airfrance.us: Sign up for a Flying Blue frequent flyer account for free and then you'll have access to their award tool which is proficient for Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Kenya, Air Europa, and TAROM.
Their award calendar is actually on the smarter side, so when you see green dates, it means there are "low" level Skyteam bookable awards.
Wandering Aramean Tools: This free service lets you search Aeroflot, Air China, China Southern, Vietnam, China Southern, Czech, TAROM, Vietnam
Expertflyer.com: This paid service will let you search for Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas (future Skyteam member), Air Europa, Air France, Alaska, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czec, Delta (only upgrade space), GOL, Hawaiian, Malaysia, and TAROM.
KVS Tool: This paid service will let you search for Delta awards by tier for Air France, KLM, Czech, Aeroflot, Alitalia, TAROM, Aeromexico, China Southern, Vietnam, Kenya, and Air Europa
Once you find partner space, you can try booking it at Delta.com using the multiple city search for Delta, KLM, Air France, and Air Europa ... however, the system is volatile. Your best bet is calling Delta and hoping to get an agent who knows what they are doing. When booking Skyteam partners and the rep doesn't see the availability that you know is there simply:
1) Ask them to long sell the award (say "trust me") and wait for HK confirmed (they will know what this means)
2) Hang up and call again. I usually have to hang up 3 or 4 times before getting an agent smart enough to book Skyteam partners like China Southern and Vietnam.
Stopovers/ Open Jaw:
Delta is actually flexible with awards and allows two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw. For example if you were going to take a European cruise that left from Athens and returned to Istanbul and you also wanted to see Paris, you could book ATL-ATH (Destination), IST-CDG (stopover), CDG-ATL (return) all for the price of a roundtrip ticket pending award availability of course.
Cancelling an award ticket:
In order to change an award, you must redeposit the miles and rebook. Delta charges $150 per ticket, unless you are a Platinum or Diamond Medallion member, who have unlimited free award deposits. If you have an award booked in the future that you want to change, you may want to wait until there is a schedule change and then Delta may allow you to redeposit or rebook for free.