SRQ: Is It Worth Using Delta SkyMiles on Upgrades?
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TPG reader Natalie is worried about imminent changes to the Delta SkyMiles program and wants to put her miles to good use on domestic upgrades on the route she flies most between Raleigh and Los Angeles. Here's here question:
"I have been reading your releases regarding the changes for Delta frequent flyers and Medallion members. I admit I find it all rather confusing. It does sound like I might be wise to start using these miles and would like your advice on how best to use them. I fly from LAX to Raleigh RDU about 4-5 times a year to visit family and always fly Delta.
Is a good way to take advantage of my SkyMiles to use them for upgrading from coach to first class since I admit I enjoy the comfort of traveling first class? I really want to use all these miles to the best benefit and would appreciate your advice."
Here's what I have to say, and read on below for further details:
First let me say, I don't think all the changes that Delta has planned have been announced yet. They recently announced their new 2013 Medallion Guide which has the new MQM earning rules for both full-fare first and business class fares, the reduction of the class of service bonus for M fares and it highlights the new SPG Crossover Rewards benefits.
Starting in 2014, Delta will also introduce their Medallion Qualifying Dollars requirement where you'll have to spend a certain amount of money in addition to flying to qualify for Medallion status. This really isn't the end of the world, since you can be exempt from it by spending $25,000 per year on any Delta Amex card. I do think down the line they are going to align their award redemption towards the value of the ticket. So that's why I say I'm using my SkyMiles more so than my other currencies.
Now one thing that I do dislike about SkyMiles is how hard it can be to redeem them for award tickets. There can be a lot of issues when redeeming with partners, such as Delta blocking first class awards, and you can't book one-way awards. So, in fact, using your miles for upgrades is not such a bad idea at all.
Delta is one of the only airlines that doesn't charge a co-pay to upgrade, so you're just looking at using miles instead of both miles and hundreds of dollars on top of your fare.
If you were to fly Los Angeles - Raleigh, upgrading would be 12,500 SkyMiles each way, or 25,000 roundtrip. Remember, though, the cheapest coach fares (L, U, and T fares) would not be eligible for upgrades. You would have to book a K fare or higher. That said, the cheapest K fare may not be that much more expensive than a discount economy fare, and depending on when you are buying, the K fare may be the lowest offered. One thing to take into account before you do buy an upgradeable fare, though, is how much more oney you are going to have to pay for it versus just buying a discounted economy ticket, and making sure that the premium is worth it to you. For example, you can get K fares from North America's East Coast to Hawaii for around $900, which is pretty reasonable, and upgrade those using 15,000 miles each way - and that's a lot of hours in first class! You can find the upgrade requirements here.
If you value flying first class (like I do!), 25,000 miles first class roundtrip comes out to about $250 when you value SkyMiles at roughly 1 cent per mile, which is not a huge premium to be paying at all in order to bump up to an entirely different class of service.
Before you book anything, though, you also have to make sure there is availability for your flights. To do so, you can't check Delta's site, but you can call Delta up to check that and to process the mileage upgrade as well. I don't think that this is a bad use at all for general SkyMiles members who aren't eligible for complimentary Medallion upgrades.
Internationally, it's a different story. Delta requires you to buy a Y, B, or M fare in order to upgrade, which are the most expensive coach fares to buy, so sometimes buying these can be even more expensive than buying discounted business class in advance.
I definitely think if you are going to get value out of first class, especially on those red-eye flights. Use your miles for what makes you happy and who really cares about the cent-per-mile value if you enjoy the trip and you are getting a good product and saving money.