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I’ve got a compressed timeline trip to South America later this month and needed a return flight from Rio de Janeiro (GIG) to Atlanta (ATL). Business class is obviously preferred for long-haul trips, but getting back to Atlanta means two things:

  • Nonstop flights are operated by Delta, and that typically means a few hundred thousands SkyMiles for a business class seat.
  • Using SkyTeam or Star Alliance partners will result in multiple connections from South America to get home. Also, business class award seats will probably be recliners on a Copa 737-800 if I want to use Star Alliance miles or an Aeromexico 737 recliner seat if I want to use SkyTeam miles. Neither are desired.

I decided flying economy on the Delta nonstop would save me significant time and hopefully some miles compared to business class on other airlines. I headed out to find an economy award seat on Delta flight 60 from GIG-ATL, and by the time I had a ticket in my email, I saved 77,500 miles by booking the Delta flight with Virgin Atlantic miles instead of SkyMiles. Let’s look at my options and how I ended up booking.


I can often find great prices for economy seats on Delta’s own long-haul flights when booking with SkyMiles. But, it just so happens that the week I’m in Rio is not one of those times. Every day requires a painful 100,000 SkyMiles for an economy seat on the nonstop:

Adding insult to injury, some typical Delta nonsense means if you started in Sao Paulo (GRU) and flew to Rio to catch the nonstop, the price decreases 70% to 30,000 miles for an economy award seat:

This had me considering cutting my already compressed trip even further and hopping down to GRU just to catch a flight back to GIG and save a ton of miles. With availability for the nonstop flight not at the lowest SkyMiles level, I figured there was little hope that partner airlines would have availability. But, I took a look anyway and was thrilled with the results.

Flying Blue

The loyalty program of Air France and KLM can often have seats on Delta flights for fewer miles than Delta itself charges, but availability and carrier surcharges can be tough. There’s good news on one front here: surcharges are banned for all award tickets departing Brazil, so I knew if there was availability, any taxes and fees would be tolerable. To my surprise, even with Delta wanting 100,000 miles for a seat, Flying Blue had availability for my required date:

That’s a 75% savings in miles for $20 more in taxes and fees. I was pretty thrilled with this result and almost transferred 25,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards to Flying Blue when I remembered there was perhaps a third option to book the flight.

Virgin Atlantic

Anytime I look at booking a Delta flight, domestic or international, I check with Virgin Atlantic to see if there’s availability and the mileage required. You can’t search this particular Delta-operated route on the Virgin Atlantic website, so I called up Flying Club to request availability.

Again, with Delta wanting 100,000 SkyMiles for a seat and Virgin Atlantic not in the SkyTeam alliance like KLM and Air France’s Flying Blue, my expectations were low that Virgin Atlantic would have access to an award seat. So when the phone agent said he had two seats available, I was blown away. And when he quoted the miles, taxes and fees required (there isn’t a full award chart on Virgin Atlantic’s website for Delta), I couldn’t have been more excited:

The total came to 22,500 miles and $51.81 for what originally would have cost 100,000 miles with the same taxes and fees. That’s such a small number of miles to pay for a 10-hour flight. The icing on the cake is that I have Delta Platinum Medallion status as a result of a status match challenge from my now expired AA Executive Platinum status. That means a preferred seat with extra legroom for free at the time of booking and an Economy Comfort+ seat is a possibility later down the road.

I’ll sit the entire 10 hours in that seat, legs stretched out, with a huge grin on my face knowing I paid only 22,500 miles and $50 for the nonstop flight home. As a reminder, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club will put award tickets on hold for 48 hours even with no miles in your account, so you can transfer Amex, Chase or Citi ThankYou points to your account.

Bottom Line

It certainly pays to be familiar with partner booking options. You need to ingrain in your thought process that before you ever book a Delta-operated award flight, you better check with Air France and Virgin Atlantic. Even better, check Virgin Atlantic pretty much any time you want to book an award ticket. Last week, I booked Air New Zealand business class from Auckland to Los Angeles for 62,500 Virgin Atlantic miles. This week is Rio to Atlanta for 77,500 miles less than the SkyMiles rate. The end result is a nonstop flight home and an extra day with wife and kids thanks to Virgin Atlantic.

Featured image by Shutterstock.

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