5 things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles

Jan 14, 2021

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Are you a casual flyer that’s looking for an inexpensive way to get to Florida for spring break? Or, maybe you’re a serious Delta loyalty that’s been looking for ways to supercharge your SkyMiles account.

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It’s no secret that the SkyMiles can be confusing — and frustrating at times — to use, with no award charts and seemingly constant changes and devaluations. However, once you have a stash of SkyMiles in your account and are armed with the knowledge necessary to navigate this program, you will find that you can get a tremendous amount of value from your SkyMiles. For example, we’ve seen Delta award flash sales offering round-trip tickets on domestic routes for just 10,000 SkyMiles. Looking for a deal to Europe? Delta has run flash sales for round-trip economy for 16,000 SkyMiles and round-trip flights for 98,000 SkyMiles. You’re probably already starting to think about the possibilities!

While you’ll have to put in the effort to understand and ultimately use your SkyMiles, there’s little doubt that Delta’s in-flight experience is tops among U.S. carriers. Today, I’ll tell you five things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles so you can put them to their best use.

There’s no published award chart

Put simply, we don’t know how many miles an award flight on Delta is supposed to cost. In 2015, Delta removed award charts from its website without notification, and they have not (and by all accounts will not) return. If you’d like to save miles for an award flight in the future, you need to search your intended route on a multitude of dates to estimate the approximate range of miles required, knowing that it could change at a moment’s notice.

The second point to make on the lack of published award charts is just how vast a range of SkyMiles can be required for the same route. Domestic flights that are 8,500 miles one day can be half that just days later. Look at the one-week variance in price for a short flight from New York-JFK to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD):

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

When it comes to international routes and specifically premium cabins, the variance can be even more significant, like with this award search for one-way business class flights from Detroit (DTW) to Paris (CDG):

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Availability with award programs is always a challenge, but without set prices, these significant variances end up forcing you to plan your trip schedule around availability, rather than SkyMiles rewarding you with your desired schedule.

Finally, with no fixed prices, last-minute SkyMiles award tickets function like revenue tickets: They tend to be significantly more expensive. Delta doesn’t charge a close-in ticketing fee like other carriers, but a higher amount of miles required within 21 days of departure is a de facto close-in fee.

This is a major drawback to collecting SkyMiles compared to other legacy carrier miles. If I need a last-minute ticket, I no longer bother even searching with SkyMiles. In this Detroit (DTW) to Chicago (ORD) example, close-in award tickets are more than double the price compared to booking about three weeks out — typical for Delta:

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Adding segments can lower your award ticket price

Counterintuitively, to pay fewer miles for a Delta award ticket, you sometimes need to fly more. This is a result of Delta taking advantage of little/no competition on routes from its hubs. Try to avoid starting a domestic award search on Delta.com from Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW) or Minneapolis (MSP). Award tickets will usually be much higher due to no competition — especially when you’re hoping to fly in first class. Here’s a search from DTW to San Francisco (SFO) in economy one-way:

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

When you shift your origin to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), which happens to be served by plenty of other carriers, the prices drop significantly with many itineraries on these days connecting in Detroit:

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Delta increased the number of miles needed to fly partners

In late 2020, Delta again increased the SkyMiles required to book partner-operated award flights. It now costs even more miles to fly with partner airlines across the board on flights to and from the U.S.

Business-class awards were especially hard-hit by these changes. For example, Virgin Atlantic flights to and from the U.S. now cost 95,000 miles instead of the previous 86,000-mile price. The price of economy tickets has also risen 10,000 miles to 35,000 miles one-way.

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

You’ll see similar increases on Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, China Airlines, China Eastern, Korean Airlines and Virgin Australia flights originating from the U.S.

Keep an eye on SkyMiles sales

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Delta had been routinely publishing SkyMiles sales for specific routes and travel dates that often yielded tremendous value for both main cabin and Delta One bookings. As the pandemic took its toll on the travel industry, Delta hasn’t been publishing these sales officially, though it’s still common to find domestic routes starting at 10,000 miles round-trip. And you can often find one-way tickets starting at just 4,500 miles.

Delta SkyMiles
(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Keep an eye on Delta’s SkyMiles sales page, as we think the carrier will resume publishing these sales once again as travel begins to resume at more meaningful levels in 2021.

You can earn elite status without ever flying

Delta SkyMiles is the only program I’m aware of that still lets you earn top-tier status only through credit card spending. And in 2021, Delta has made it easier to achieve status without flying thanks to its “Status Boost” benefit which gives those who hold select cobranded cards a full 25% increase in MQM earn at existing Status Boost milestones.

If you have both of the Delta cobranded cards issued by American Express that earn Medallion Qualification Miles (either the consumer or business versions of each card), you could spend your way to upper-level Platinum Medallion status quicker than last year thanks to the boost.

Here are the four cards and the Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) they allow you to earn:

If you hold the Delta Reserve Amex and can put $120,000 in spend on it this year, you’ll reach Platinum status since you’ll waive the Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement for Silver, Gold and Platinum Medallion status. While not Delta’s top-tier, Platinum Medallion still comes with unlimited upgrades and a selection of Choice Benefits that can make your flying experience much better.

Bottom Line

On one hand, it’s tough to pass up only paying 4,500 to 10,000 miles for domestic tickets. On the other hand, Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein doesn’t want people to use miles to fly for free, and I have a hard time trusting a program that is against award flights and is known for routinely making unannounced devaluations.

I continue to find great value in using SkyMiles for domestic flights for me and my family, and I find equal value in holding Delta Platinum Medallion status. However, if I’m looking for aspirational or long-haul premium cabin awards, SkyMiles isn’t the currency to hold.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Business Amex Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Amex Card, please click here

Featured photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

Additional reporting by Nick Ellis

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