Reader Email Sundays: What is the Best Way to Get Low Level Delta Awards to International Gateways?

Jul 3, 2011

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TPG reader Michael writes:

“From my city I can hardly ever find Delta low mileage awards to Europe (or even USA) No direct Europe flight from here. The closest partner gateway is Chicago or Denver.  Using the AF search engine I can often find direct Europe flight on Delta partners.

Is the best option for a low millage award to buy a ticket to gateway and then use the partner Delta award to Europe?

I lose the delayed flight protection of a through ticket that way.”

TPG Response:

I always find it amazing that it’s usually easier to find low level award place to international locations like the Seychelles and Johannesburg than it is to find a low level domestic award flight, from say Washington DC to JFK. This is because all Skyteam partner availability is at the “low” award level (see Delta award charts). Delta prices awards a la carte, which means if a single leg of your trip is a medium or high level flight, the entire trip gets priced at a higher level. For example if you have a trip Detroit -Chicago (medium level coach is all that is available), Chicago – Paris (low level business) and then Paris – Detroit (low level business class). It will generally price out at 100,000 miles for the low level business international award plus 40,000 miles for the one way domestic leg, for a grand total of 140,000 miles. So in essence, you pay 40,000 miles more, even though a low level coach (25,000 mile) or first (45,000 mile) leg would be included in the 100,000 mile price.
Or if you resign yourself to paying for a 200,000 miles mid tier award on Delta from let’s say JFK – Manchester and then you add on an Air France flight from Manchester to Paris, you pay an additional 45,000 miles – even though that leg would have been included for free if the international legs were low level – so you are looking at 245,000 versus just 100,000 if the entire trip was “low” level.

You are also correct in that booking multiple itineraries is a risky proposition. If you book a revenue flight to your gateway city and that flight is delayed or canceled, you run the risk of your entire trip being canceled. That being said, I think it’s safer if you book within the same alliance – for example, if you fly Delta to catch an Air France flight and the Delta flight is canceled – they will have more control in fixing your entire trip than if you fly JetBlue to your Air France flight. I believe Delta would have less mercy if you were flying a competitor and would put the responsibility on them to reaccomodate you (which wouldn’t happen because no airline is going to reaccomodate you internationally for a domestic flight).

So what’s the solution? There isn’t a way to make low level awards magically appear, though there are strategies to finesse the system.
1) First, when using, search by one-way segments. You don’t want “thinking” for you. Give it as little focus as possible, so for example just do searches for the one-way domestic segments. Don’t assume it will show you every possible connection. See my post on quirks and how to work around them.
2) Create your own routing. If you are trying to get from Cincinnati – Washington Dulles, don’t give up if you don’t find award space on the non-stop flight. Try CVG-JFK-IAD or CVG-ATL-IAD or CVG-DTW-IAD or CVG-MEM-IAD. You may not think a particular routing is valid, but I have always had good experiences convincing phone reps to book zig-zag itineraries for the purpose of locking in a low level award.
3) Try your luck with phone agents and be honest with your intentions. I find that joking around with them about’s crazy award pricing generally gets them working for you. Don’t get snarky with them about the process – trust me – they deal with it every single day. I sometimes apologize and say, “Sorry for wasting your time – I wish I could do this online, but they make it so hard. I really appreciate your help, I just want to use a few miles as possible so I can take more family members on this trip – revenue tickets have been so expensive lately!” The more you can be down to earth and not a snotty frequent flyer demanding your free ticket, the better chance of the phone rep being your advocate.
4) Book the medium level domestic leg as an “insurance” policy, but keep checking to see if low level award space opens up. I notice that within 2 weeks of a departure Delta opens up a ton of award space, both domestically and internationally. Unfortunately there is no way to automatically waitlist for an award, so you’ll have to check availability on your own, which can be very time-consuming.
5) If a low level seat opens up, Diamond and Platinum Medallions can change award trips for free (it’s as simple as calling and saying, “Low level award space has opened up on my route, can you reprice at the lower level?” For non-Diamond/Platinum Medallions, the fee to change or reprice is $150 per ticket. While that can get pricy, but if you are saving more than 15,000 miles and or getting a better itinerary, it’s probably worth it. With repricing awards you do not have to worry about losing your existing confirmed legs – they stay the same and at the low level (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

So to sum it up, I do not recommend buying separate tickets to get to your gateway city unless you build in an extra day or two to take into account any delays or cancellations. While stringing together a low level international award can be time-consuming, it is possible, so don’t give up!

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