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Earning points and miles is the surprisingly easy part of award travel; it’s learning how to maximize value when redeeming that takes practice. In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains how to use your Delta SkyMiles to book the flights you want.
Do you ever have trouble using your miles to book an award flight? You’re not alone! That’s why today I want to continue my series on how to book awards with several of the major frequent flyer programs. After writing last month about how to book Awards with American Airlines and with United Airlines, in this post I’ll examine how to redeem with Delta.
The Delta SkyMiles program continues to be a moving target (to say the least) when it comes to award travel redemption. There have been plenty of changes over the last year — some good and some bad — forcing SkyMiles members to re-evaluate award redemption strategies. Despite the new challenges, there’s value to be had.
This year Delta switched to a revenue-based system for earning miles on its own flights, making it harder for casual flyers to build up a meaningful balance through travel. However, Delta offers plenty of ways to earn miles through its partners, especially co-branded credit cards. American Express currently offers four different Delta SkyMiles cards:
Delta SkyMiles. This entry level card offers very little beyond double miles for Delta purchases and one mile per Dollar spent elsewhere. In fact, its only other feature is a 20% discount off of inflight food and beverage purchases, which is hardly worth its $55 annual fee.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express. In addition to the benefits on the SkyMiles card, the Delta SkyMiles Gold card features a first bag fee waiver, priority boarding, and reduced fee access to Delta SkyClubs. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express and Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express. Moving up, this card offers everything the Gold card does, plus the opportunity to earn Medallion® Qualifying Miles (MQMs). When you spend $25,000 in a calendar year, you earn 10,000 MQMs and 10,000 bonus miles. Spending a total of $50,000 in that same year results in an additional 10,000 MQMs and 10,000 bonus miles. The other big feature of this card is a companion certificate good for a free domestic, economy class round-trip ticket (taxes not included). The certificate is received each year upon account renewal. There is a $195 annual fee for this card.
Delta Reserve Card (consumer and business versions). The top of the line SkyMiles card offers everything that the Platinum SkyMiles card does, plus a membership in the Delta SkyClub lounge program, although it’s only valid for the primary cardholder. The other big benefit is upgrade priority over other SkyMiles Medallion members at the same level who are not Reserve cardholders. The companion certificate is valid for economy or first class domestic flights, and the MQM offers are a little bit more generous. When you make $30,000 in purchases during a calendar year, you earn 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs. When you reach a total of $60,000 in purchases during the same calendar year, you earn an additional 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs. There is a $450 annual fee for this card.
Credit card transfer partners
You can also earn Delta SkyMiles by transferring points from Amex Membership Rewards, which gives you plenty of other credit card options. For example, the Amex Everyday Credit Card has no annual fee and offers double points at grocery stores, plus a 20% bonus when you make at least 20 transactions during your statement period.
Delta is also a Starwood transfer partner, so you can earn points with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, as well as the Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express.
Sadly, SunTrust’s SkyMiles debit card is no longer available to new applicants, but you can earn SkyMiles from numerous airline, hotel, car rental, and cruise partners. Delta also offers non-travel partners that include dining, shopping, and even energy companies. For more information on partner earning opportunities, see this page at Delta’s site, or read my post on 21 Ways to Earn Airline Miles that You Might Not Know About.
Redeeming SkyMiles for flights
Now comes the challenging task of redeeming your miles for flights at reasonable mileage levels. In early 2015, when Delta announced its 2015 SkyMiles program, it released a new award chart that went into effect on January 1st. In one of the most bizarre moves in frequent flyer history, Delta then withdrew all of its award charts in February, just five weeks later.
To some extent this move didn’t matter much, since the award chart is still available elsewhere. And besides, I found that several of the awards listed on the chart simply didn’t exist at the saver level even before the chart was pulled.
For the moment, it appears that the (now unpublished) award chart still exists as the basis of Delta’s award program, and you would be wise to consult the chart in order to learn what awards are at least theoretically possible with your miles.
Thankfully, there were a few positive changes that resulted from the 2015 SkyMiles program. First, there appears to be more domestic, economy class awards available for 25,000 miles round-trip. I wouldn’t call the number of awards generous, but finding such availability no longer feels like winning the lottery. In fact, Delta surprised many by introducing some 10,000 mile, one-way awards. The ability to book one-way awards was also a major (long overdue) enhancement. Now, if you find a decent award seat, you can book one leg of your trip with SkyMiles and another with cash or miles from another program.
I’ll also give credit where it’s due by admitting that Delta’s new award search engine is substantially better than before. I like being able to search for awards on a five-week view, and it’s nice to search for round-trip flights by using a matrix of departure and return dates.
As with other programs, I like to begin my award booking process with a straightforward search from my origin to my destination, so I can establish a baseline of what’s available and perhaps get lucky on my first try. You will most likely be disappointed by the high number of miles required for your award, which will almost always far exceed the previously published prices on the first two or three levels of the award chart. This is especially true with international flights and those in business class.
The next step is to search from my home airport(s) to an intermediate hub city such as Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, New York, Los Angeles, or Seattle. When going to Europe and beyond, I like to first search for awards to Amsterdam and Paris, which are also major Delta hubs.
Once I find availability to an intermediate city, I then perform a separate search from there to my destination. I’m trying to find connecting flights with no more than a 24 hour connection, since Delta no longer allows stopovers longer than 24 hours on the way to your destination. Finally, I try to piece those awards together using a multi-city search, or by contacting Delta over the phone.
The biggest problem with this strategy is that the award search engine still misprices awards, often quoting the cumulative price of two legs rather than offering a single price from origin to destination. Furthermore, you can no longer hold Delta to the prices published in its award chart, because that award chart is no longer published. Nevertheless, it can still help to call Delta and plead your case.
To make matters worse, Delta now appears to be employing so called “married segment” logic. Even though a domestic flight from A-B might be 12,500 miles, and another domestic segment B-C might be 12,500 miles, Delta may price the award A-B-C at a higher number of miles, and no amount of arguing is likely to help.
Searching for partner awards
If you’re still coming up empty when searching for awards on Delta’s site, your next step is to expand your search beyond the airline awards available online. Although Delta has recently improved its online search capabilities, it still only shows award flights from the following carriers:
- Delta Connection
- Aerolineas Argentina
- Air France
- Alaska Airlines
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Garuda Indonesia
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Korean Air
- Middle East Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
Currently, this leaves award travelers to their own devices (or the mercy of Delta representatives), when searching for award seats on the following award redemption partners:
- Air Europa
- Air Tahiti Nui
- Czech Airlines
- Great Lakes
- Kenya Airways
- Thai Airasia
If your award includes flights on any of these partners, you will always have to call Delta to book it. Thankfully, all partner awards should automatically price at the lowest mileage level.
In the cases of Air Europa, Air Tahiti Nui, Czech, Kenya, Tarom and Xiamen, award space can be searched on the website for Flying Blue, which is the frequent flyer program of Air France, KLM, and others.
Call Delta: If your award itinerary contains any partner flights that were not visible online, or the website is not pricing your awards correctly, then you’ll have to call Delta and have a representative book the award manually. This can be extremely frustrating, as many representatives are not well trained on how to book partner awards (some aren’t even aware of which airlines Delta actually partners with). In many cases, you’ll have to politely hang up and call back if your’re routed to a less capable representative. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to waste several hours of your time finding someone at Delta that can correctly ticket your awards.
Search less popular routes: While Delta may offer several flights a day from its hubs to those of its partners, it rarely offers award seats on these flights at reasonable mileage levels, especially in business class. Therefore, some of the best award space is often found on non-hub to hub flights or non-alliance spokes, of which Delta and its partners have many. For example, Delta flies to Paris from both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and it also offers a daily flight from Portland to Amsterdam. When looking for partner awards, consider flights that arrive in cities that are not Delta hubs, such as the Air France flight to Washington-Dulles, or the KLM flight to Chicago-O’Hare.
Use creative connections: It also helps to get creative and book flights connecting in cities that are not hubs for either carrier. For example, I once flew from Nairobi to Rome on Kenya Airways, and then connected to a Delta flight to Atlanta. Don’t be afraid to look for flights to a secondary city overseas, and then connect to a partner carrier there to complete your journey.
Use schedule changes to perfect itineraries: With Delta awards, I tend to be willing to book award flights with multiple connections that take me out of my way if I can do so at a reasonable mileage level. I do this knowing that Delta is notorious for frequent schedule changes, and it’s unlikely that I’ll actually take my award flights as originally ticketed. Thankfully, Delta can be exceptionally generous in re-accommodating passengers on their choice of flights when a schedule change is made. In these cases Delta should notify you of its change, but you never accept the changes. Instead, call Delta and and suggest alternate Delta operated flights that you prefer, and it’s likely that a representative will grant your preferred itinerary at the same price for no additional miles. This can work even when the schedule change is minor (like just a few minutes in either direction).
Consider purchasing positioning flights: Since partner award flights always price at the lowest mileage levels, adding a single domestic segment at a higher level could trigger a much higher price for the entire award. If you have found a Delta or partner award at a low mileage level, but adding travel to your gateway city radically increases the price, it might be worth simply buying a ticket (or redeeming an award with another carrier) to position yourself for your Delta award, while allowing plenty of connection time to account for possible delays and cancellations.
Beware of one-way award flights to the United States: For some reason, Delta imposes fuel surcharges on one way flights from Europe and the Middle East to the United States. It asininely calls this cost an “international originating surcharge,” as if that would help rationalize it. The moral is that if you only have enough miles to book one segment of an international award trip from the US, book your outbound flight that originates in North America.
Consider the Miles + Cash option. Delta allows you to book hybrid awards using some miles and some money, which it calls Miles + Cash. As TPG Contributor Richard Kerr found out, these awards can make sense in some circumstances.
What are your tips for booking Delta awards?